There’s a straight-line connection between inbound search traffic and revenue for most online businesses. More visitors usually equals more revenue, so companies do whatever it takes to drive people to their virtual front door. Some of this traffic is purchasable through paid search advertising. Other traffic is earned when people find a website organically using a search tool. This organic search traffic is extremely valuable because it’s essentially free. Unfortunately, it’s also subject to the ever-changing whims of the search algorithms controlling the internet.
Business leaders, particularly those who rely on ecommerce sales, need to understand the mechanics of organic search traffic and how frequent algorithm changes can impact that flow. But another often underappreciated factor in this conversation is how a business’s website platform can make them more or less capable of responding to changing organic traffic patterns. As a result, business leaders who future-proof their company’s search engine optimization (SEO) strategy and eCommerce platform capabilities will be better equipped to capture market share over their competitors.
Search is always evolving
Google controls 93% of global search traffic, making ecommerce businesses especially vulnerable to their product updates. Since the way we search has evolved over the years, Google regularly adjusts its algorithm so its tools deliver the results users want and need. Those changes can be small and go unnoticed. But every so often, Google releases what it calls core updates that have the potential to completely upend the search environment.
Core updates are great in many ways because they incentivize the web to make constant updates that better meet users’ needs. But there can be a dark side to core updates. In some cases, websites will suddenly see their organic traffic crater after an algorithm change. These abrupt changes usually indicate that a site did something Google disapproved of, like ignoring ongoing SEO changes or failing to update the site regularly.
To make matters worse, the only way a website can recover from a core update hit is to meet Google’s new search criteria, which requires a significant investment of time and money. So, companies that rely heavily on organic search traffic are always one algorithm update away from suffering a substantial drop in traffic and revenue.
A brief history of core updates
Core updates happen a few times a year. In most cases, Google doesn’t announce these changes in advance, and people only notice when site traffic suddenly changes. In rare instances, Google has offered advance notice for significant changes requiring fundamental shifts in how people handle their website and SEO strategies. Here’s an incomplete list of some notable recent core updates and the intent behind them:
- In 2017, Google acknowledged the growing impact of smartphones by announcing it would slowly begin indexing mobile sites first. Because this was a major shift, Google provided advanced notice to give people ample time to prepare. Called “Mobilegeddon,” this update ushered in the mobile-first era.
- In 2018, Google continued emphasizing the mobile experience by implementing its so-called “speed update,” which included page speed as a ranking factor for mobile search.
- In August 2022, Google rolled out a “helpful content” update that sought to weed out content written with the intent to game search engines. The algorithm would instead prioritize content it believed was written from a “people-first” perspective.
- In September 2022, Googled released a core update and a product review update just days apart. While the company hasn’t detailed how these updates have changed search, certain websites have seen significant traffic changes.
In the wake of every major update, people examine the fallout in an attempt to reverse engineer the algorithm changes for clues about Google’s evolving priorities. For many websites, the fallout from a core update can be an unexpected traffic influx or significant bump in the road.
The potential impacts of a core update
In each of the instances listed above, websites that did not meet Google’s new search criteria standard suffered compared to websites that kept up-to-date on the latest SEO best practices. But the improvements or declines websites experience can vary widely.
After the most recent core update, Google watchers tracked the biggest search winners and losers. The best performers saw their search visibility improve between 40 and 300%, while the most significant losers retreated by 30 to 60%.
Either way, ecommerce companies must prepare to face these sudden algorithm changes with tools that enable them to take advantage of new opportunities or shift to meet a changing search environment. It’s here where flexible website platforms become a critical business asset.
The platform connection to search
In the past, businesses selected a website platform and either made it fit their business model with plugins or built their business operations around the abilities and functionalities of the platform. Today, B2B and B2C businesses need to understand the organization’s needs and direction and select an ecommerce platform that enhances what they are doing and supports future growth.
These days, companies have a host of ecommerce platforms to choose from, with major players like Adobe, Salesforce, Shopify and BigCommerce leading the way. Some platforms offer near-endless flexibility that sometimes comes at the expense of reliability and security. Others are more limited, which can inhibit growth, particularly when responding to changing conditions.
Here are a few examples of how businesses should be thinking about platform upgrades in 2023:
- If, in the next couple of years, a business is planning on expanding into marketplace opportunities like walmart.com, eBay, Target and additional ones as they appear, selecting an eCommerce platform that easily allows for products to be sent out and orders to be sent in for fulfillment will be extremely important.
- Platform partnerships are also expanding. If developers and core ecommerce partners are choosing to work with some platforms over others, that would indicate high confidence in their ability to perform over the next few years. If partners are moving away from certain platforms, it may be more difficult for businesses to get help adapting to future changes in the eCommerce landscape.
- If inflation, recessionary conditions, or other economic headwinds persist, controlling costs may become more important. So it will be advantageous to select a platform with reasonable maintenance costs.
Platform flexibility is also critical for adapting to an evolving search environment. This idea was reinforced after September’s core update, as the changes hit companies with older, inflexible platforms harder. Knowing that Google will continue refining its search algorithm means that any new platform a business chooses must be flexible for SEO purposes, particularly organic listings. Otherwise, they will be limited in their ability to evolve, adapt and prepare for the future.
Two important takeaways
The takeaways here are twofold. First, businesses should never rely solely on organic search to drive revenue because so much of it is out of their control. The existing model is too fickle to rely on, and there’s too little transparency regarding the drivers of organic traffic. What Google deems essential one day could be inconsequential the next, which means businesses should never scale based on organic traffic.
Businesses should also always be prepared to mount a response if it suddenly loses a large share of their organic ranking. A great place to start is by balancing the business with multiple sources of inbound traffic, which will help companies recover from a sudden decline in organic traffic.
Second, even though organic search traffic isn’t completely controllable, businesses can put themselves in a better position to respond to search changes and protect their revenue by selecting flexible ecommerce platforms. After all, company websites shouldn’t be set-it-and-forget-it assets. Ideally, they’re ever-evolving tools purposefully designed to meet the changing needs of the business and its customers while simultaneously satisfying Google’s ongoing search refinements.
Now is the time to act
Now is an excellent time for business leaders in the eommerce space to reexamine how their website platforms support future goals. It’s also critical for businesses to have experienced SEO professionals regularly working to maintain and update their website presence. In a future article, I’ll share tips eCommerce businesses can use to ensure their platforms and SEO strategies are optimized to meet a challenging online environment. This is critical work businesses must undertake to stay competitive and ensure revenue is protected before the next core update comes around.