This Ecommerce SEO Tip is Brought to You By the Letter PThink you know everything there is to know about search engine optimization? Pretty sure you have a handle on Google’s algorithm and what it uses to rank your ecommerce site?

This morning I realized exactly how little I can say that I know for sure about how search engines rank pages. I know what I think I know and I know what appears to work, but outside of that, how search engines rank pages is still largely a mystery, even to “the experts.”

I was trying to get some music to play on my computer while I worked. I like and use it often. So often, in fact, that I can type the letter “p” in my URL address bar, click the down arrow key once, hit return and pull up the site. Three clicks and I’m listening to my favorite tunes. Not this morning. Maybe I hadn’t had enough coffee yet, but I typed “p” in the address bar and hit return, without clicking the down arrow. So, instead of pointing my computer directly to Pandora, inadvertently, I was trying to direct my machine to “p.”

At this point, I would expect my browser to choke and tell me that “p” is not a valid web address. Instead, something interesting happened. Unbeknownst to me, my browser realized it couldn’t direct me to “p” and it sent “p” to my default search engine–Google–to see what it could come up with.

Now before I go any further, let’s think about what we know about search engine optimization and keywords, not to mention the vastness of the Internet. How many sites have a letter “p” somewhere in their domain name, page titles, page descriptions, or content? Lots. Okay, so it would make sense to assume that Google would ask for more information, right? Maybe a second letter, or a whole word, or at least an abbreviation?

Google figured out the best possible results for a search based on the lonely letter “p.” Here they are:

Google Search Results

The top search result was a Wikipedia page dedicated to the letter “p,” then a link to a page dedicated to the HTML <p> paragraph tag. Third is “paolo i” on Twitter and then Pink’s So What video and the Guns ‘n Roses video, Sweet Child o’ Mine. (The GnR result leaves me scratching my head.) Finally  the paragraph symbol “P” and Auntie P’s photostream on Flickr.

I didn’t expect this. I turned off the “instant” feature on Google–got the same results. Went to Bing and typed “p.” This is what Bing returned:

Bing Search Results

Similar enough to Google’s results that it got me to wondering how a site ranks #1 for the single letter “p.” It was time to peek at the source code. Based on what I know about the title and description tags, these sites should be calling out the letter “p.”

The Wikipedia entry for “P” has a page title of “P – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” There is no description tag but the title tag makes sense. The <p> HTML paragraph page had a title of “P paragraph HTML 4.01 Strict.” Again, no description meta tag, but the title tag has “P” in it. Paolo’s Twitter page didn’t have a <meta title> tag at all, instead there was a <title id> tag of “paolo i. (p) on Twitter.” (Consequently, when I looked at Paolo’s page, he had nothing but the letter “p” as his Twitter name, hence his ranking.) Pink’s video page made more sense to me with a title tag of “P!nk – So What.” The “p” is there and she’s a popular artist whose name starts with “p.” But Guns ‘n Roses? Their title tag on YouTube was “Sweet Child O&amp;#39; Mine Music Video.” Is their page pulling because of the “p” in the code? Seems unlikely based on how smart the search engines have become. I checked the actual page on YouTube and didn’t see any obvious clues as to why this video was included in my search results.

It’s clear that some of the tried and true SEO rules still apply–page title and content are paramount–but there is considerably more to search engine ranking than meets the eye. This is especially clear when you compare results–Google and Bing matched results on some of the pages, but ranked them differently. Others appeared on one results page, but not the other.

What does this mean for your ecommerce site? Well, first, don’t give up on SEO. It still matters and you still need to make use of it to get ranked highly. Second, use keyword rich page titles. Each page title should be unique. Ditto for the page descriptions (even though only half of the pages I sampled had Meta description tags at all). Third, provide dynamic, keyword-rich content on your site. Exceptional content is your site’s meat and potatoes–this seems to matter as much if not more than the title of the page. Finally, don’t obsess about the exact algorithm that Google or Bing are using. Their unique recipes are highly proprietary and closely guarded. Just provide exceptional content for your users. That’s who your site is really for anyway.

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