February 26, 2020 Update: eBay’s BHP subdirectory now appears to have been taken down, as well. We will have a discussion of these changes — coming soon!
February 17, 2020 Update: A recent test revealed that the Electronics “SEO page” cited in this open letter to eBay’s former CEO has, at last, been taken down. Further testing of eBay’s RPP subdirectory is forthcoming!
Dear Mr. Wenig,
Our website may be brand new, but I’ve been studying the subject of search on eBay for the last nine years.
And as a marketplace SEO, I’m worried.
So, I’ve opted to launch our company’s blog with a bang — an open letter to you.
Mr. Wenig, please take down eBay’s noncompliant “SEO pages.”
The Q1 2019 earnings call
As I have done every quarter for many years, I listened intently to this week’s earnings conference call with a view to what I might learn about SEO. eBay’s relationship to search, particularly Google, has been a regular subject of these calls for the last five years.
But for the first time in recent memory, you didn’t mention it.
You did discuss the “evolution of structured data,” issues with the rollout of your product-based shopping experience, increasing the number of payment options for your buyers, and eBay’s pay-per-sale SEM product known as Promoted Listings.
(The latter, which has quickly become synonymous on eBay with “listing visibility,” dominated the Q&A session of the call.)
But the real news, from a seller’s point of view, is the ongoing problem of a plateaued GMV.
In spite of fairly consistent buyer growth, gross merchandise volume was down this quarter by a full 4%. And this was better than projected.
The loss in merchandise sales can be partially explained by your recent reduction in ad spend, as well as state sales taxation hurdles.
But the truth is, GMV on eBay has been comparatively flat for the last five years.
And the real reason isn’t being talked about.
The “SEO pages”
This past January, in eBay’s Q4 2018 earnings call, you said the following:
“Non-structured data SEO pages are delivering less traffic and lower conversion compared to a year ago, and while we increased our marketing spend in Q4, we experienced lower returns than expected. As we entered 2019 we’ve aligned our tactics to directly address these issues and to capitalize on the opportunities ahead of us as we transition to a different eBay in 2020 with a comprehensive catalog, intermediated payments and a robust and high contribution advertising business.”
It was actually six months prior to the above quote when you first used the term, “SEO pages.”
You described these pages as having been intended to bring in organic search traffic, but which had not been “built on structured data.”
You also stated at the time that they “continued over the last several years to see degradation.”
It was clear to those listening that a significant factor in eBay’s weakened overall sales performance was a collection of problematic webpages — pages that were not compliant with your structured data framework.
It is my contention that these pages, the ones that you dubbed “SEO pages,” are not only still live and still causing “degradation,” but that they are also the same pages that, five years ago, earned eBay a Google manual action penalty.
If I am correct, the only way to truly address your GMV problem, then, is to immediately deal with your “SEO pages” issue.
And to do that, you will have to take the one step with these dubious pages you’ve, to this point, refused to do.
Which is to take them down.
The “path” to the problem
To prove my thesis, I need to dig into a fairly technical subject — namely, the recent history of eBay’s URL subdirectories.
A subdirectory is one of any number of folders found in the component of a web address known as the “path.”
An example of a subdirectory, designated “rpp,” can be found in the path of the following URL:
The eBay “rpp” subdirectory was just one of many three-letter URL folders observed at the time of Google’s manual penalization of eBay in May 2014.
These apparently new URL subdirectories contained what looked like early versions of eBay’s structured data “category pages” (i.e., browse pages).
But they weren’t.
They were, I am convinced, the very “black hat” SEO pages responsible for the penalty.
Why do I say this? Because there are plenty of them still around.
The devil’s in the details
Although it also contains many defunct eBay events pages, the “rpp” subfolder is the present home to numerous pages like the one at the above link.
As we take a look at the structure of the page, you will notice the following details:
- It is extremely link heavy.
- The links point to actual structured data pages, as well as eBay SERPs.
- It contains text at the bottom solely intended for search engines.
- It is largely detached from the eBay marketplace (e.g., there are no links to any actual product listings, as on legitimate browse pages).
And according to SEMrush, the page receives no traffic of any kind (at least prior to this post!).
To make matters even worse, the “rpp” subdirectory contains a whole host of different page types, in addition to the aforementioned expired events pages.
Among other things, the subdirectory contains ranking eBay Motors pages, pages that redirect to other “rpp” pages, and still others that forward to “b” and “bhp” subdirectory pages.
In short, the folder is a mess. And it’s not the only one.
The “bhp” subdirectory
Students of eBay SEO will remember that the “rpp” subdirectory we have discussed was not the folder responsible for the action taken by Google.
Shortly after the penalty was assessed, the now-infamous “bhp” subdirectory was firmly established as being the one that originally contained the “black hat pages” — with some in the SEO community even conjecturing the designation may have stood for the phrase.
The effect of the penalty was dramatic. As the pages in the “bhp” subdirectory dropped quickly in Google search results, our research at the time suggested eBay had abandoned the folder altogether.
But no longer.
Today, the subdirectory is back in use.
An example of the active “bhp” subdirectory is the structured data browse page for “Captain America”:
So, after having been the source of the problem, the “bhp” folder now contains legitimate SEO pages.
How did this happen?
The eBay “SEO page” shuffle
In 2014, immediately after eBay discovered its penalty from Google, eBay clearly scattered the pages of its “bhp” subdirectory across numerous other three-letter subdirectories — including the “rpp” subdirectory.
And then, as individual pages were properly converted to eBay’s new structured data format, they were simply moved back to “bhp” (the category-based browse pages were moved to “b”).
In other words, instead of immediately taking down what you described as “SEO pages,” it appears eBay merely shuffled the deck.
As any decent SEO would have done when eBay first became aware of the penalty, I would have advised you to back up the contents of the “bhp” subdirectory, and then delete it. Remove it from the internet entirely.
But you left the pages up.
As a result, your company’s standing in Google’s eyes remains in jeopardy — as it has for five years.
The real SEO “degradation”
One major misconception from which you appear to be suffering is the idea that the structured data-compliant pages have been spared SEO “degradation.”
The truth is, the browse pages that are performing well would be performing better had you chosen to take the noncompliant pages down.
In fact, all of eBay continues to be penalized because of your failure to address this issue. The expected gains in organic traffic were not there in 2018 directly due to this decision.
All of eBay continues to be penalized because of your failure to address this issue, and the expected gains in organic traffic were not there in 2018 directly due to this decision.
It is essential you understand that Google’s view of you as a company is directly affected by these black hat SEO pages, not just the pages themselves.
In the same way Cassini’s Best Match algorithm grades the quality of a seller and not just his / her individual listings, Google has judged the quality of eBay as a whole on the basis of these pages.
eBay and SEO
As a search engine optimization professional, I am genuinely baffled by eBay’s relationship to SEO as a practice.
eBay has proven itself competent in the field in a number of ways, including its consistent use of rel=canonical and Schema markup.
Your developments in visual search, the urban renewal-focused Retail Revival program, your consistent innovation in the open source arena, and the creation of your own custom-designed servers prove eBay is not afraid of early adoption and a bold look to the future.
But I swear, it’s as though “SEO” is a bad word at eBay.
In addition to your own reluctance to publicly discuss “Google’s impact” on eBay, the official conversation around the subject of SEO is misguided and misleading.
And even worse is the unofficial dialogue surrounding eBay SEO — an irrelevant, hackneyed mythology with no limit to its absurd assertions.
I’m not one of those eBay sellers who has “drunk the Kool-Aid,” Mr. Wenig. However, I am someone who genuinely believes in your ability to lead eBay out of this morass — due, in large part, to your willingness to publicly address the problem.
But time is running out to actually fix it.
Make the right decision for your business, pull the trigger, and take the remaining pages down.
I promise you won’t regret it.
Keep your chin up,
Founder & Chief Analyst, List Rank Sell