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New EU regulations compel more transparency for search rankings

The effort to reverse engineer and improve visibility in Google search results spawned an industry. Now the EU wants to make it easier for non-SEO professionals, especially small businesses, to understand how search rankings work.

Guidelines support 2019 regulation. That effort is embodied in regulatory guidelines released yesterday in Europe. They ask search engines, “online intermediation services” (e.g., marketplaces) and travel sites to disclose ranking factors and update them each time a meaningful algorithmic change takes place. This extends to the influence of payments and ads on organic rankings.

Their stated purpose is “to improve predictability and help users improve the presentation of their goods and services, or a characteristic of those goods and services.” In other words, the EU wants to demystify search and marketplace rankings for marketers, merchants and publishers.

The guidelines were developed in support of “Article 5 of Regulation (EU) 2019/1150 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 June 2019 on promoting fairness and transparency for business users of online intermediation services.” They appear substantially directed at product search results but they’re written in a way that suggests very broad application.

Public description in plain language. The guidelines say they’re not legally binding but are designed to help “facilitate compliance” with Article 5, which says (in relevant part), “Providers of online search engines shall set out the main parameters, which individually or collectively are most significant in determining ranking and the relative importance of those main parameters, by providing an easily and publicly available description, drafted in plain and intelligible language, on the online search engines of those providers. They shall keep that description up to date.”

These ranking factors can be presented in different places though the guidelines recommend “a single touchpoint (for example in a user ‘dashboard’) that could reference or index all the relevant informational tools available to explain ranking transparency.” Regardless, the information can’t be buried in terms and conditions; it must be found in “an easily accessible location on the online search engine’s webpage. This may be an area that does not require users to log in or register to be able to read the description.”

As indicated, the discussion of ranking parameters should be presented “in plain and intelligible language,” although in some cases it can be more technical for “professional users.”

Ranking variables but not algorithms must be disclosed. Article 5 and the guidelines also say that search engines and marketplaces are not required “to disclose algorithms or any information that, with reasonable certainty, would result in the enabling of deception of consumers or consumer harm through the manipulation of search results.”

Accordingly, they need to enumerate the key variables or considerations that determine rankings but not the algorithms themselves. However search engines and marketplaces are obligated to “describe the ‘relative importance’ of the main parameters.”

Some hypothetical ranking parameters provided by the EU include:

  • Page-loading speed
  • Security (e.g. HTTPS)
  • Images (e.g. type, number, quality)
  • Consumer reviews (e.g. number, rating, recent)
  • Trader-Consumer Interaction (e.g. answered queries, responsiveness)
  • Dispute settlement history (e.g. number of consumer complaints, solutions found)
  • ‘Offline’ service quality indicators (e.g. hotel star rating, delivery performance, the degree to which places, brands etc. are familiar or well known in society)
  • Data protection ‘score’, e.g. based on reviewing the privacy policies of apps by an app store
  • Web accessibility
  • Content quality
  • Key word tagging
  • Title accuracy and relevance
  • Concise answers, for example as regards products or services offered, or in response to FAQs

Why we should care. While the intent of Article 5 and the corresponding guidelines is to bring more fairness and transparency to search and digital marketplaces, it’s not yet clear what any of this will look like in practice. One compliant model might be something like what Google does in local, with advice on how to improve visibility and rankings.

Yet the guidelines also ask marketplaces and search engines, effectively, to rank the ranking factors, identifying their “relative importance” — in other words, whether page speed, for example, is more important than reviews. Even though most of the ranking variables used by Google are widely known and openly discussed, the disclosure of their hierarchical importance could be significant for marketers and their clients.

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About The Author

Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor to Search Engine Land, a member of the programming team for SMX events and the VP, Market Insights at Uberall.

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