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Google Creates Pre-Christmas Turbulence for Cotswold & Go Outdoors

Glen Etive, Scotland, in early Winter

The important trading week immediately before Christmas saw two of the most dominant retailers in the outdoors industry hit choppy waters in Google’s search results. While remaining dominant for the majority of their most important search terms, an unusual patch of rankings volatility will have impacted the number visits from Google organic search - a significant driver of business for both retailers.

For weeks in the pre-Christmas period, neither Go Outdoors or Cotswold Outdoor had seen much variation in the search engine rankings for the search terms that drive the majority of their website traffic (not always the same search terms). This is often the case for broadly-based and very dominant players in a product category - Go Outdoors have a Domain Authority of 57 and Cotswold Outdoor’s is 59 (if DA is new to you, those are big numbers).

However, in the last few days before Christmas, and at odds with some of their competition, both companies saw their search visibility wobble substantially and in a mostly negative fashion. Now, if those companies (or their competitors) are monitoring their raw rankings or average rankings, they probably didn’t notice much, as these saw little movement, but factor-in the visitor volumes behind each search term and something more dramatic happens!

Here’s Go Outdoors boring but brilliant average Google position for their top 50 organic search terms over the past month:

Go Outdoors Aver Google Position Dec 18

Yep, there doesn’t appear to be too much to be concerned about. But here’s the search visibility data for the same period:

Go Outdoors Google Search Visibility Dec 18

Mmm, you can immediately see the problem - and the number of website visits from organic search lost each month from this change will be in the order of 15000 to 25000. The reason is frighteningly simple, as Go Outdoors lost traction on a couple of high volume search terms and gained traction on lower-volume ones. Because a high percentage of organic traffic for most ecommerce sites is driven by a few high-volume terms, gains and losses on these have a very disproportionate effect.

So, if you’re a senior manager in the outdoors sector and someone keeps quoting your average rankings or regularly changes the basket of search terms being measured, it might be worth asking why.

BY way of a little contrast, the similarly-positioned Cotswold Outdoor saw rankings volatility start a few days earlier, despite also enjoying some previous flat-lining joy. Looking at the average ranking chart below, I have to feel sympathy for the ecommerce team that realised ‘peak’ was bringing a late storm their way. For a big player to suddenly be this volatile on their 50 most important search terms isn’t that common and, unlike Go Outdoors, Cotswold are seeing volatility across many search terms. In particular, overall negative swings have affected some big-volume brand terms (Osprey, The North Face and GoPro are evident) and several seasonal clothing terms, including snow boots and wellington boots.

Cotswold Outdoor Average Google Position Dec 18

The effect of this level of rankings change can clearly be seen in the search visibility results for December. Unfortunately, that big late gain may have come a little too late (although ‘sale’ is probably going well:

Cotswold Outdoor Search Visibility Dec 18

Fortunately for both companies, their website traffic sources are relatively diverse. In addition to being two of the broadest participants in Google’s paid programmes, they have significant visibility in Google search via other content blocks such as video, local pack (usually store locations), Google images and Google Reviews.

For example, across the 50 search terms that Resonant monitor for Cotswold, they serve Google text ads and Google Shopping ads on virtually all of them (in addition to having strong organic rankings, etc.). Likewise, Go Outdoors are big advertisers and put even more weight behind Google Shopping to capture purchase-ready visits for their most important search terms.

In a previous article on Cyber Week, I noted Cotswold’s slight weakening against Go Outdoors. This seems to be continuing, despite the late wobble at GOO. In the next few weeks, I want to take a look at more vertically-integrated players such as Alpkit and Paramo (both feature in Resonant’s DCrux database), but I sense that audit data from the Cotswold and Go Outdoors websites may throw up some nuggets.

Happy New Year, everyone.