google-keeping-ebay-downAt the end of last month, we reported on Vivint, a smart home company, which found itself delisted from search for four months shortly after Google bought Nest and the two companies became rivals. Vivint had violated Google’s search rules, but complained about being given little guidance on righting its wrongs and argued that a complete lack of transparency left it essentially fishing in the dark to get back in Google’s good graces.

Google buys company A, company A’s competitor immediately ends up blocked from search for an unusually severe amount of time. It looks bad.

But as Google’s Matt Cutts and its collected Internet sycophants argued to us, Vivint violated the laws. There’s nothing to see here. Google is totally transparent. TOTALLY.

Except, well, uhhh… now, as Google ramps up its own Google Shopping options, another of its competitors found themselves falling afoul of Google’s mysterious search rules.

Only this time it wasn’t some Utah-based upstart. It was eBay.

Google has two algorithms that crawl the Internet looking at content. Panda analyzes content, penalizing sites that are rife with duplicate, spammy content; Penguin looks for spammy links.

On May 20 on Twitter, Google’s Head of Webspam eBay’s Matt Cutts announced an update to Panda — edition 4.0 — on his Twitter page. eBay’s organic search positioning immediately went into free fall and in the almost month since the update, has not recovered.

According to analytics site SEMRush, in April eBay had 8.4 million search terms placed in Google’s top 100. In May it had 7.8 million. This month, it has just 5.4 million.

But it’s also less about how many search terms eBay has in the top 100, than where those search terms fall. In April, eBay placed in the top five of Google’s search results for 3.5 million terms. Now it is in the top five for just 1.1 million queries. It was placed on the first page of Google’s result for 5.4 million search terms in May, but now makes the top ten for just 2.5 million terms.

It’s a punishment for eBay that has competitive advantage for Google. It has been upgrading its Shopping option, phasing out antiquated product listing ads in favor of Google Shopping display boxes, where Google is either getting paid for selling, or advertising the product. It started doing this in beta last October, and will have completed the switch over by August.

Foxtail Marketing’s Mike Templeman says that eBay’s place in Google search results fell for as many as 80 percent of its search terms after the Panda 4.0 update. The Panda algorithm analyzes the quality of content on each web page and eBay’s site is built heavily upon product pages which are often flimsy and without a lot of original content. But that’s just the nature of eBay, he adds, and other e-commerce sellers. Amazon was also hit, to a lesser extent.

“eBay wasn’t doing anything wrong. Google just changed the rules,” Templeman says. “It leaves eBay with two options, it forces them to spend more money on Google ads or they can rewrite all of their content.”

Search for an iPhone 5s on Google. Its own shopping box filled with paid links comes up prominently. Amazon’s product listing for iPhone comes up on page two. eBay’s is nowhere to be seen. The company is already one of the biggest purchasers of Google’s Product Listing Advertisements, but if it wants to keep getting higher up, it will keep having to pay.

Google teased to Recode after people first noticed eBay’s plummet that it wasn’t the Panda algorithm, but a manual action that stung eBay. A Google spokesperson told Pando that “we do occasionally take manual action” but wouldn’t confirm if such a thing had taken place.

Instead they toed the company line. “We typically don’t get into details on specific sites,” the spokesperson said.

For SEO experts looking on, it was another worrying example of how much commercial influence Google’s search results have and how they can be used to its advantage, whether deliberate or not.

Disruptive Advertising’s Jacob Baadsgaard saw eBay’s search demotion as a direct e-commerce play by Google. As eBay and Amazon have risen to new heights as sellers, Google’s own decade old platform has been stagnant.

“As Google gets stronger and stronger they have huge impact being the gatekeeper to a lot of the traffic on the Internet,” Baadsgaard says.

Which is troubling, that anti-competitive pall that sits over this all. Google Search is a large sledgehammer it gets to wield and it has no imperative to publish its own search rules.

“In the SEO space no likes to ruffle Google’s feathers,” Foxtail’s Mike Templeman says. “If they dig deep it feels like they could find a problem with anyone’s site.”

eBay and Google’s Head of Webspam Matt Cutts did not respond to requests for comment.  

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]