Secret search ranking factors: EU tackles big search providers

The EU has published their “Guidelines on Ranking Transparency”, which seek to make search engines and online intermediation services fairer. They’ve also published a list of factors that might be important in ranking search results. This is an interesting development which I will follow, as I write a lot of content for the web. Search ranking clearly has a profound influence in our buying decisions, so any change to this could make a great difference to marketers.

The EU has observed the secrecy around search ranking factors, and that there is no particular consistency in search engine results. Their new guidelines apply to search engines and online mediation sites. They are an attempt to create a more level playing field for businesses with websites and for internet users. However, the law-makers are up against the powerful forces of Google, Microsoft Bing and other huge online companies. Can the EU legislators regulate the giants of business and the Internet?  Thinking about the GDPR legislation, that has worked quite well, so the Guidelines on Ranking Transparency could be the start of another profound change. At this stage, the EU is asking search providers to comply with its guidelines.

What are they trying to achieve?

The EU wants us to understand how search rankings work, so that businesses can market their goods and services more fairly and more predictably. It also wants internet users to understand why certain goods and services are placed at the top of search results.

Few people outside digital marketing and SEO understand search engines. SEO is complex and keeps changing. It is really an area for specialists. Those of us who own a business probably invest some time and effort in SEO, but the process is difficult, and we do not know if it is fair or not.

The EU wants search engines to reveal the main factors that affect the ranking of results on their pages, and provide this information clearly to internet users. For example, it could appear as an explanation right next to the internet search results. Some providers might place the information in their terms and conditions or FAQs, but internet users don’t always read those.

Importantly, if top search engine rankings are achieved by payment, this should be clearly stated to Internet users.

Ranking factors remain secret

The ranking factors or combination of factors that bring a website to page one of the search engines remain a mystery. There are many factors that could be relevant, mostly relating to website design, technology and content. The EU’s list starts with sitemaps, page load speed, security/HTTPS, images, reviews, questions answered, disputes settled, sales completed, price, content quality and linking, keyword tagging, etc. It is a very long list.

Personalisation is another interesting factor in search ranking. It is affected by the privacy settings in our browsers, and generally we don’t know how that works either.

The EU feels that search providers don’t currently have any meaningful accountability for the ranking mechanisms and results they provide. At this stage, the EU is asking online providers to disclose their ranking factors, and this would help. However, it is not asking providers to reveal how their algorithms work. The new guidelines are just a first step towards making search rankings more transparent. I see some irony here. If the EU is successful, and if search providers reveal their ranking factors, businesses will immediately want to use this information to promote their goods and services more effectively.

See the full EU notice here and the full list of possible ranking factors here:

https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A52020XC1208%2801%29#ntr1-C_2020424EN.01000101-E0001

On a similar subject, just this week, I’ve read that there are several US lawsuits challenging Facebook’s monopoly position and their habit of buying their competitors!

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