Product Feed Optimization: It's painful. Suck it up.

Ian Lurie

This is part 3 of a series of articles on Universal Search. If you don’t know what universal search is, read this article first: click here. If you just want to catch up, read yesterday’s post about image and video search optimization, too.

I hate spreadsheets. Especially endless ones with thousands of rows. So you know that product feeds must really work for me to go through a 30,000+ row Excel file and optimize, row-by-row, for different terms and phrases.
It’s kind of like going on one of those free timeshare weekends. You get a benefit, but somewhere along the way you’re subjected to 3-4 hours of excruciating boredom. Just remember this image of a single day’s sales on a site. The ‘base’ row is from Google Product Search:
There’s gold in them thar hills. So grab some patience, take a deep breath, and get ready to delve into product search.

What Product Search Is

Google and Yahoo! both have separate search tools where you can search for products by keyword and get pricing, store names, etc. all in a nice list. Live has their ‘cashback’ search engine, which does the same thing but desperately tries to bribe you.
All of these product search tools grab their data by:

  • Crawling sites normally and grabbing pricing, etc.. I don’t know how much product data they get this way, but they try.
  • Loading product ‘feeds’ that the site owners provide. That’s what we’re going to focus on in this article.

You can always search product data by using Google or Yahoo! Shopping. But sometimes the search engines will add product search results to the standard search results, too. Which explains…

…Why You Should Care About Product Search

An optimized product feed can get you to the top of the search results the same way image optimization can: Through universal search. Look at this search result for ‘tennis balls’:
Some little Yahoo! store got the #1 ranking out of 14 million competing pages, because they were number 1 for the product search result. Not bad.
An optimized product feed can put you at the top of the search results for phrases that have clear commercial intent – phrases that will, more often than not, result in a sale.

How To Prepare A Feed

The simplest product feed is a spreadsheet. Dump your products to an Excel file, edit ’em, then upload the file to the search engine, and you’re good to go.
I’m not even going to attempt to explain the specifics here. To prepare and submit a product feed on each search engine, check these links:

Once you have your spreadsheet and account set up, read on…

Product Feed Optimization

Most folks just dump their product database into Google, Yahoo! and Live without any edits. That’s a huge mistake.
Product search is very literal. If you sell ‘shoes’ but put them in a category called ‘footwear’ on your site and in your feed, you’ll never get a top product search result for ‘shoes’.
So your product feed edits should center around search phrases with commercial intent. Here’s how I do it:

  1. Open your humungous spreadsheet. Let out a sigh. Get it out of the way now. OK, nicely done.
  2. Sort the spreadsheet by product category, department, or whatever you call it on your site. Examples of categories are ‘shoes’, ‘day planners’, ‘books’ or ‘fiction’. Whatever you call them, sort by those.
  3. Search each category using Google’s External Adwords Keywords Tool.
  4. Find the least-competitive, most-searched version of your category name.
  5. In your spreadsheet, replace all instances of the original category name with the one you found in the keyword search. Repeat for every category.
  6. Next, look at your product names. Do you include the target key phrase in the name? For example, if you sell Pocky, all related products should include the word Pocky. So ‘Glico 2 oz box’ becomes ‘Glico Pocky: 2 oz box’. Edit all names accordingly.
  7. If you’re really a glutton for punishment, edit all of your product descriptions so that the essential information is in the first 10-15 words. Most product search tools will truncate the description, so details must come first.
  8. If the search engine has custom attributes such as size, color, style, etc. fill those in, too. If you’re the only person selling bright green canvas socks, those custom attributes are your ticket to a top position.

That’s it. Once you’re done, save the spreadsheet and upload it. After a few days, do a few searches on relevant keywords and see how you’re doing. I check weekly when I can, and make little adjustments here and there.

Product Feed Don’ts

Do not:

  1. Use your pre-made cart’s direct-to-search engine submission tool. That will dump unoptimized product information into the search engines’ product search tools. You need to optimize first.
  2. Attempt to spam by packing keywords into descriptions. It’s just not worth it. Matt Cutts will find you. Actually Matt’s a nice guy, but he’ll get someone less nice to find you.
  3. Put ‘CLICK HERE TO BUY!’ or ‘BEST PRICES EVER’ in your product information. Most of us know cheeseball when we see it. Stick to the details.
  4. Change pricing in the feed to try to get folks to click through. That’s illegal.

One Final Note: Feed Services

There are several feed services out there that’ll take your products and submit them for you. SingleFeed is my favorite. They cost, but they also provide tools to make editing easier.
Some shopping carts include cool editing tools that will let you edit and save product feed data separately, so you don’t have to re-optimize the feed every time you export it. Well, actually, the only one I know of is my company’s, but I had to brag.
If you have other feed optimization tips, post ’em as comments below.
Remember, this is part of a series. Here are the other articles:

  1. Universal Search, Lesson 1
  2. Image and Video Search: How to optimize (as best you can)
  3. Product Search: The pain and agony, and why you need to suck it up.
  4. News Search: Why it’s hopeless (unless you’re a news outlet).
  5. Local Search: How to optimize.
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Ian Lurie
CEO & Founder

Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent and the EVP of Marketing Services at Clearlink. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). He's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at portentint, and on LinkedIn at

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  1. Ian, Thanks for the recommendation! Very informative article for all those who are new to the data feed optimization and product submission to shopping engines. We know how you and other hate spreadsheets, SingleFeed aims to make dealing with feeds and the CSE’s a whole lot easier.

  2. Thanks for you informative series about universal search optimization. It’s not easy to find valuable information about this topic, escpecially within the last few months. Looking forward for the last chapter to come.

  3. The past few weeks I’ve been optimizing the product feed for my company, which fortunately and at times unfortunately is populated by a backend ERP system. Meaning titles & colors are abbreviated, and HTML + ASCII characters are riddled throughout the descriptions.
    Needless to say, I’ve gotten pretty friendly with excel macros to help automate the optimization task, since we can’t change the ERP limitations.
    Worthwhile? We’ll have to wait and see…
    I recommend that if you have analytics to tag your urls with something like ?utm_source=google&utm_medium=base. Otherwise, Gbase traffic will be lumped in under google/referal.

  4. I think I have a related question:
    I have many sizes available for my product (shoes), should I include all size variants, or include all sizes as one product?

  5. @Aris I recommend including each size variant and using the custom fields to include the size in the feed. This can get you a LOT of long-tail traffic.

  6. Hey thanks Ian!
    Your site has been a terrific source in helping me re-align web marketing tactics when I felt I’ve reached a brick wall.
    Great Site, Great Work!

  7. First genuinely useful article I’ve found on the topic, so thanks for that! As a copywriter first and an everything else second, I want to emphasize that even if your product appears first, if your descriptions and calls to action make people nervous about the credibility of your services, they still won’t buy from you. Important to remember.

  8. Definitely one of thebest ROI methods to marketing retail products on the web. From my 12 years experience working with Froogle, now Google Product Search/Shopping, they’ve done a good job with their site in expanding it, though the recent September 2011 upgrades are still getting settled in. Thanks for the info, this saved me some time today!

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