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Costco, Walmart, and the Battle for SEO Shelf Space

A metaphor of little things chasing a single, larger thing.I’ll start off with the takeaways in case you’re in a hurry:

  • Redesign best practices have been well documented for years. If you’re not following them, you’re not doing your job.
  • Even the biggest brands in the world are not immune from losing clicks due to sloppy practices.
  • If you’re not there to claim your clicks, someone else will be. Probably. Someone. You. Hate.
Let’s back up and offer disclaimers: I’m a fan of Costco. I’m less a fan of Walmart. Neither one is a client of ours. One of them should be.
I’ve shopped at Costco for years, both in the store as well as online. So recently, in the middle of shopping for laptops, I noticed that Costco had launched a site redesign. The problem is that relatively little effort went into making sure that Google knew what was going on when they flipped the switch. Here’s a shot of a SERP for [costco tvs] just a few minutes after the redesign, which basically means Google hadn’t begun to process it yet:
SERP for [costco tvs] immediately after rollover, prior to Google noticing.

SERP for [costco tvs] immediately after rollover, prior to Google noticing, showing the main TVs page and three sub-cat pages. Walmart is at 5th position.

(Please don’t comment on why I needed to search for TVs during a laptop hunt. I just did.)

Point is, Costco had some pretty healthy results for [costco tvs] prior to its redesign: A couple of dupes to its main TV page as well as two subcategory pages. (And what was Walmart doing there? We’ll get to that.)

But no 301s went up. Oh, wait. 301s did go up, but they went to the home page. Yes. Every legacy URL on the site got 301-redirected to the root. Chew on that for a while and imagine the sort of chest pains you’d be feeling if this was your site.

A few days later, Google was having some real problems understanding what was going on. Which is to say, Google knew exactly what was going on, but it was taking way longer to process than it should have. Here’s the same SERP about five days into the rollover:

SERP for [costco tvs] about five days after costco.com rolled over.

Five days after rollover, Google really has no idea what’s going on and is showing some very poor results, with Walmart in 3rd position.

An “extended warranty” page for TVs, the home page (which is no surprise, given that about 4.6 jillion old pages now redirected there), and Walmart. We’ll get to Walmart.

Ten days in, the same SERP shows a link to a specific TV, the home page, and the extended warranty. Walmart still at 4th. We’ll get to Walmart:

SERP for [costco tvs] 10 days after relaunch

10 days after rollover, the top three results are an interesting lot. Walmart is 4th.

So about two weeks into this redesign, Google is really just starting to put the pieces together. Costco has painted itself into a corner of full, from-scratch crawling and indexing, and their organic traffic likely looks like the backside of a mountain right now.

Moving on, you may find it interesting to see Walmart showing up for [costco]-related queries. (I sure do.) Better yet, it’s interesting to see titles with “Costco TVs on Sale” on its site. This seems about as likely as finding a Seattle’s Best endcap at Starbucks.

Costco, of course, does not make televisions. So technically, there is no such thing as a “Costco TV.” But Walmart is smart enough to know that people search this way to find the televisions at the Costco.com site. To put it in SEO parlance, [costco tvs] is the layperson’s version of [intitle:tv|tvs site:costco.com].

What Walmart is doing is really nothing new. They’re simply allowing their own internal search results to be indexed, and it just so happens many of these search results are poised to compete for terms that Walmart.com would typically not rank for naturally. It’s no secret that Google doesn’t care for pages like this (“Use robots.txt to prevent crawling of search results pages …”), but again, given Walmart’s footprint, it’s unlikely to care too much about slight transgressions.

(Digging deeper, about 47 million of Walmart.com’s 22 million indexed pages are search results. Yes, you read that right. What an inverted ratio like this typically means is that the vast majority of those 47 million are considered fairly low quality. Obviously not all of them are, though, or we wouldn’t see them in SERPs like these.)

The indexing of internal search results is secondary. What’s really interesting is how you can go to Walmart’s internal search engine, search for [costco] anything (such as costco computers or costco prepaid phone cards), and it comes up with results. This means that somehow, Walmart is tagging these SKUs with “costco” for its internal search appliance and then getting them crawled. Or at a minimum, it’s allowing search results to appear even when all query terms aren’t satisfied. I can’t find any trace of “costco” on the actual product pages for SKUs that show up in these results, or in the user reviews. So all in all, this process is pretty sly. But again, the indexing is secondary. They may exist somewhere in Walmart’s vast XML repository or someplace else. So feel free to dig in and find out.

Just the same way, people search for [costco laptops] to find laptops on Costco.com. In this case, Walmart is there too, but they’re doing it with a little more class — by buying “costco” keywords through AdWords:

Walmart purchases ads for Costco terms over AdWords

Here’s where Costco wins organically, right? Wrong. The Costco page does a 404.

While Walmart doesn’t have an organic presence for this query, Costco doesn’t do much better. Why? Because its top organic listing results in an error page. A 404? They wish. It’s a “connection refused” error, which is such a slap in the face that it doesn’t even merit a numerical error code, because the server won’t even connect to give you one. So good luck reclaiming any of these clicks. This is another instance where a simple two-column 301 map would have made all the difference:

shop.costco.com refuses the browser's connection

In a “connection refused” error, you don’t even get the benefit of the links you could put on a custom 404 page.

Here’s the conclusion: Walmart is no angel here, but truthfully, if you’re going to sleep through the SEO portion of a redesign, you’re practically asking your traffic to go somewhere else. When your mistake corresponds with someone else’s tenacity, you lose.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://blog.intrapromote.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/erik-dafforn.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Erik joined Intrapromote full-time in 2002 after coming on as a contractor in 1999. ]Currently, as President, he divides his time between overseeing the SEO department and managing organic SEO campaigns. Prior to working at Intrapromote, Erik worked in publishing as a development editor in the programming imprints of IDG Books and Prentice-Hall Computer Publishing so if anyone needs a keyboard shortcut, they ask Erik.

Among Erik’s professional bragging rights include the fact that he led the team that was awarded Honda’s prestigious “Premier Partner” vendor award for SEO Services (twice). He also contributed on the recently published Search Engine Optimization Secrets with Danny Dover.
[/author_info] [/author]

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Erik Dafforn
Erik joined Intrapromote full-time in 2002 after coming on as a contractor in 1999. Yeah, he's been here a while. Currently, as President, he divides his time between overseeing the SEO department and managing organic SEO campaigns. He's also one of Intrapromote's Chief Big Idea Guys. Prior to working at Intrapromote, Erik worked in publishing as a development editor in the programming imprints of IDG Books and Prentice-Hall Computer Publishing so if anyone needs a keyboard shortcut, they ask Erik. Among Erik's professional bragging rights include the fact that he led the team that was awarded Honda's prestigious "Premier Partner" vendor award for SEO Services. He also contributed on the recently published Search Engine Optimization Secrets with Danny Dover. Erik rivals Aaron Sorkin in his candid wit (although he will completely disagree with that statement) and has been a tremendous asset to Intrapromote since day one. He is incredibly intelligent and when you read any of his posts, you'll be able to sit back and say "Wow, I've just been Dafforned."
Erik Dafforn
Erik Dafforn
Erik Dafforn

3 Comments

  1. Mike Sep 28, 2012 Reply

    Excellent article, Erik! I think digitally Costco is lacking in many aspects. Their app and email are about as close to par as you can get. What’s sad is that they are such a fun brand to do business with.

  2. Erik Dafforn Author
    Erik Dafforn Sep 28, 2012 Reply

    Thanks Mike. I agree. It’s hard to write about how they’re dropping the ball because I’m such a fan of the brand. But maybe someone there will listen and up the game a little bit.

  3. Garth O'Brien Oct 1, 2012 Reply

    Just check out their Jobs page on the corporate site. They promote within. I actually live in Issaquah (their corporate headquarters), and it is no secret that warehouse staff, over time, move to corporate positions.

    Just imagine an entire website team staffed with customer service employees. Sure they will learn over time and could very well become great, but Costco.com is not a site to “learn on the job” with.

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