Saturday, July 23, 2016

The New Normal - Etsy Changes Part 2

Well, I really didn't expect to wait 7 months between blog posts! There have been things happening all over the place and I've been caught up both in those things and in my own day-to-day navigation. For the last 3 months especially my brain has been like a ball of tangled fairy lights and I've had my energy and attention sucked up by the process of untangling (and finding more than one set in there). Some of that I’ll talk about another time.

As you can tell from the title I'm going to be doing more business stuff today, but before I get into that I want to let everyone who used to come here for my art stuff know that I had a studio clean out this week (apparently the muse is 'ready now' whatever that means)  so there's lot of stuff going up in the shop to snap up for super cheap. Most of it's photo prints that I'll never run again; photography is a whole other ball of fairy lights I'm struggling with. Blech.

So that last post - wow! I've been amazed at the response, I had no idea it would get so much attention! To be quite honest if I'd known how much attention I probably wouldn't have posted it... Not because I don't stand by it; I just wasn't ready for the snowball effect it's had on my time, reading and researching and all that. But I did and it has, and now I feel obliged to follow up. It was shared in many places so I got a lot of fresh eyes coming over; this has been just as much a curse than a blessing because the nature of those comments made me realise I hadn’t been specific about who I was speaking to.

All good blogs know their audience and tailor their information toward them, but I was so used to talking to my audience I didn’t stop to think the article would get a lot of outside attention, which only goes to show how wide-spread the trouble is. But for a first time visitor here it sounded like I was speaking of all sellers on Etsy, which is not so.

To clear that up now, when I said ‘if you rely solely on Etsy search to be found, you can no longer put faith in being able to make anything more than hobby income’ I was specifically talking to the existing audience of this blog, which at the time was a small group of OOAK makers, mostly assemblage jewelry sellers. I've always been a maker of unique things, so everything that I try to lean and understand about business is done with a view to getting a unique product to succeed. Whatever I learn, I pass on to other makers of unique product. 

Except for today. Since the last post my newsletter has exploded, and I think many of you might be the kind of seller I don't tailor my advice to. So in the interests of setting things straight, this post is for all Etsy sellers. I'll go into more detail at the end of the post as to who I'll be writing for from here on in, but for now let's get down catching up on the last post and dissecting the various theories and ideas around Etsy's search algorithm and recent changes. We've entered a new Etsy paradigm and it's a highly complex beastie - in fact it's starting to look like anything more than a hobby income from Etsy search is out of reach of pretty much anyone...

As usual, LOLs provided to give your brain a moment.

First we'll do a catch-up from the last post. I’ve since learned more about the ins and outs of search, but more importantly because since my last post there have been no answers or change for the better in the drop of sales for most people - in fact since April (when the new look came in) things seem to have taken a turn for the worse. Sales have plummeted so badly for some that Etsy actually added a page to the seller handbook, ‘What to Do When You Notice a Dip in Sales’. As you can see by the comments below it, the article was more red rag than healing balm. The crowd of sellers who have gone from selling great to selling nothing in a dizzying short space of time grows ever more by the day and the forum is clogged with threads devoted to it.

This sort of thing is especially frustrating because as speculation and debate rages, Etsy admin almost never peek out from behind the curtain to clear things up. They pop up to defend the site, close threads and delete posts or provide mildly condescending advice but nothing on clarifying site operations. While they are much more transparent than almost any other marketplace, there’s nothing like silence to fuel a rising tide of dissent - if you don’t give people answers they have to come to their own conclusions, and it’ll be the worst thing they can think of.

I spend quite a bit of time browsing the forums and when it comes to the subjects of sudden plummeting sales the opposing sides seem to be up there with the battle of climate change; some say it is absolutely happening, some reject it outright, and some are still on the fence. Those who believe say ‘there is a pattern we can’t ignore!’ The critics reply ‘it’s just a natural part of things -ebb and flow’ to which the believers counter ‘there's too much of a pattern to be ebb and flow’.

Condescending Wonka - one of my favourite memes ever

With a part of the forum (including myself) now considering this state of Etsy as 'the new normal', it's come time to decide what happens next, and that involves reading and researching. What I’ve done here we can class as ‘theory based on heavy research, presented for your consideration’. Don’t take this as gospel - don’t take what anyone says as gospel. Look at your own shop, run tests and conclude for yourself. Every shop is different, what works like magic for some is useless to others.

When I pick up on something, I ask myself 'how would doing it that way make Etsy more money, improve their brand and/or improve the rate of buyers/sellers coming to and staying with the site?' ...and then I research as much as I can. There's no shortage of people complaining of low views and sales but I mostly look at shops on Etsy who have been 'doing great' up until now, to remove any niggles over poor presentation, SEO, etc. I also looked at shops who say they're doing fine or haven't noticed a change (while also making sure they're not getting anything from social media).

Okay, let's get down to it. 

Fairness algorithm

I'm going to tackle this one first - I broke most of it down in my last post but I consider this the 'mothership' that all the other theories nest into. From what I’ve read all about the place, it seems the one thing people really stick on about my last post is the central theme of Fairness, that you get shoved back in search if you make a sale.

I did say at the time it was a tiny bit conspiratorial of me, but I remain convinced the fairness algorithm or something very much like it is real, that specifically some listings can be dropped in rank based on your recent sales. How else can you explain the sheer number of people all reporting regular 'patches' of sales where once they were consistent (or consistently sporadic)? What's more, I have yet to find a quote from Etsy which directly denies that this kind of algorithm is in place.

However, I didn’t mean to say your listings get shoved to the end of the queue the moment you make a sale. When I tested I went to the last page of the search results because I assumed they would be listings either with very bad SEO, irrelevant to my search or from dead shops. But they weren’t - far from it. I don’t know where these shops ranked before they had sales and I don't know how long the drop back lasts, but even when you factor in the other elements of placement it seems very odd to me that I should find highly relevant results way back in the darkness of page 250. Page 250 should be filled with all kinds of weirdness. 

Having said that, it's certainly not the only facet to the algorithm and it's probably not operating on fixed time base, rather other factors of your shop like popularity, category saturation or keyword competition. In fact for some people who sell on Etsy you won’t get shoved back at all after a sale; if you have multiple quantity listings you are more likely to move forward in a process known as Listing Quality.

I've known for quite some time that Etsy’s system favours the multi-quantity listing; the process being when a listing with a quantity of 2 or more sells (as a result of being found in search), it gets a little boost in ranking. The next time someone searches those keywords it'll appear a little higher than before. It happens when your listing is clicked on and hearted too, which means 'quantity of 1' also benefits from listing quality, but a purchase result is much stronger.The higher your quality the higher you rank.

Etsy wants to encourage shops with multiple quantity because they're likely to sell more product over time, earning more revenue. They also tend to be 'serious' businesses with time and intentions invested, meaning they will advertise and bring traffic to the site. No surprise then that from what I could research, shops with 'quantity of 1' listings (which include vintage shops) seem to be most affected in the sudden downturn. From this you could conclude that the answer to ‘surviving’ Etsy search simply lies in having multiple quantity listings. But many sellers complaining of a sudden loss in sales are exactly these kinds of shops, selling everything in multiple quantities, so it's not the straight up answer it appears.

The 'lights out' theory (otherwise known as rotation)

This theory goes on the idea that Etsy periodically 'turn off the lights' in your shop, removing you from search visibility. It's similar to the fairness algorithm but instead of individual listings having their rank altered, it's groups of shops periodically rotated out of view using unknown criteria. Belief in this theory is generated mostly by the uncanny 'sameness' of sudden selling patterns - not just in one shop, but multiple sellers all agreeing on the same pattern - a sale every 3 to 5 days. Lately too many sellers have found their sales are like a lottery; nothing for days then ding ding! 4 sales in one evening. Then dead again. What's more - those sales are often curiously either just from one area of the country or from buyers who's last names all start with the same letter.

The ‘lights out’ theory is a popular one because it makes sense, but it might surprise people to know I don’t believe Etsy are doing this. Sort of. Mostly because they’ve directly said they don’t:
 "We do not just shut off shops or pull you from search or initiate rolling blackouts... If your items appear in a search of your shop, you are indexed and fully searchable..."

But you don’t need to remove shops from search to effectively render them invisible. As I mentioned in my last post, if there’s 56,102 eligible listings for a search on ‘red beaded necklace’ and Etsy's search results can only 10,500 that means 45,602 listings aren’t getting into the results of that person's search. For those 45k+ shops, the lights have effectively been turned out. They might get in the next person's search results, but not every time. Every shop is included in a search... you just might not appear in results.

It's nothing personal on Etsy's behalf and it's not deliberately keeping certain people down - quite the opposite. When browsing search results, forum users say they don't search past 3-5 pages and Etsy have data revealing that shoppers don’t tend to go past page 17. I can't find the interview where they said that specific number, but it was around 15-18 pages. Placement within those first 15-18 pages is hinted at in their article on how search works:
"Since listings at the top of results tend to receive more buyer attention than those at the bottom, Etsy’s search algorithm adjusts for the expected buyer behaviour for these different locations."
 What that essentially means is they arrange search so stuff that buyer is likely to want (and stuff Etsy wants them to see) is in the first few pages. So if you’re listings start on page 22 it’s as good as being in the dark. Here we come back to the notion of spreading sales around, giving people's listings a turn in the front seat.

Etsy only have so much room to show the search results for any given keyword, so they need to make judgements on who goes into those first pages and how often - and it only makes sense that they want to change that to keep as many sellers happy (and listing) as possible. But how do they make those decisions? Time for another theory!

The Bucket Theory

For those who are convinced of rotations and lights on/off, there’s a further theory that the shops are organised to a ‘bucket system’. This theory claims sellers are lumped into groups based on their shop being a hobby project, a casual interest, a part-time pursuit or a full-time job, with a 'top bucket' for the golden sellers who have high turnover. According to supporters of the theory, these are the ones who’s listings are never messed with and who are featured time and again in promotional material etc.

While I think there’s some merit to a bucket system, I don’t think it’s happening as status quo, but I do think the general idea of it holds water (pardon the pun). To explain, I'll share a quote from the article people originally got the idea from. Here’s what was said:

"We might look at it from a pure data analytics point of view, we might look at that and say, “Oh, we have five buckets of sellers, we have brand new sellers and we have these small scale sellers and then medium and big and then super top sellers.” I think what that misses is the attitudinal dimension. For some of these sellers it’s really just a hobby and they are perfectly happy to be in that, what might look like from one point of view a less successful business. Then there are other people maybe in that segment of lower sales who really have an aspiration to grow their business. From a data analytics point of view, they might look like the same people."

 Directly after that, he says:
“I think trying to deepen your understanding of the attitudes and the expectations that some of these people have, then gets you to the point where you could then target those different types of sellers with different kinds of messages like, “Do you want to grow your business or do you want to just get better at knitting or something?” [laughs] “What is your intention? Or is it maybe you are doing this for fun or is it serious business?”
Many people have taken this quote as saying in essence 'we have and use these buckets'. But what he's really saying is 'we don't have these buckets because it's too hard to quantify'. I just assumed it was down to misquoting and threw that theory back in the water. Until recently, when I registered a new shop on Etsy for a project I hope to make full-time. I came across something in the registration that suddenly bought that theory right up again. In the sign up section there is a little multiple choice that asks 'which of these best describes you?'

Click the image to enlarge

That is bucket-filling in action. Note the grey text 'this is just FYI for us, it won't affect the opening of your shop'. Very specific choice of words there - it won't affect the opening of your shop, but will it affect how you appear in search, or how often you appear?

To my way of thinking, this tells me Etsy don’t have these buckets yet - but they are working on it. They’re looking at who’s in it for the fun versus who’s in it for the long haul, but why? How does knowing that help them make money? Because it helps them figure out who needs exposure more than others. If you have a shop who's in it for kicks and a shop who's in it to be huge and they're both selling the same thing, it's in Etsy's best interests to nurture the one who plans to stay. Just two people there's room for, even just 100... but up those numbers to several thousands of sellers all selling the same thing and you can see where the choice becomes one of 'who makes us more money'.

Arranging things so people earn the level of money they expect would not only mean more sellers are happy (and stay), but also enable Etsy to make sure what's being bought is balanced with whom it's bought from. It might sound a little over complicated but remember this is a billion dollar company that builds it's house on data. Etsy does everything based on what testing and researching defines and of course now they have investors who expect Etsy to raise performance every quarter.

But what about established shops where it's too late to ask this? While they have data from surveys, things change constantly - someone who was full time last year might have knocked back to casual; someone who was just in it for fun may suddenly need it to be their whole income. It might be impossible to understand... unless you had access to a ton of data and were able to monitor every movement of every seller. Using this data you have a better chance of quantifying who’s here for fun and who’s here for money and the best way to do it is by looking at a shop's listing activity. A shop that wants to grow and a shop who’s wanting a full-time income are both going to be listing new stuff fairly regularly, whereas a part-time or hobby shop is only going to list once a week or so.

It’s often said that ‘the more you list the more you sell’ with the reason being you end up in more searches. But that only works if your keywords have enough variety to reach different searches. I think the more you list the more you look like you want a full-time income, so the Etsybots arrange things to make that happen. If you're barely listing, you look like you're not relying on the money - or you're just not present, and active shops is another thing Etsy want to favour.

A minor sub-theory that sits within the bucket theory (it's like an onion in here!) is one I'll simply call the Order/Revenue capping theory. I couldn't find much info from it but it's worth mentioning, as many people in the forums have noted they can't get past a certain number or orders or revenue in a month. I've noticed if I get a big sale in my own shop, it's a huge stats killer.

Two weeks ago I hit what I consider to be my order max for the month. I worried this meant I wouldn't get any sales for the next two weeks and sure enough, my stats froze over. The only order I had was a return customer I was convo'ing with at the time. But- add this very important element into the mix; depressed at the seemingly lack of control I had over orders coming in, I stopped listing. I stopped acting like a shop who needs the sales.

When I read through forum posts, countless people mention something about not listing any more because they either don't have the energy or they just feel it's not worth it if what they have there now isn't selling. In dropping down their listing frequency are they just digging their own grave?

When it comes to listing regularity, currently I’m treating both my shops like they’re barely a hobby and I’m seeing results that reflect that. The easy solution there is of course that if your shop is your full-time, treat it like a full-time. It's not like eBay where you can list a bunch of stuff and sit back. Like Pinterest, Etsy requires constant attention.

So the solution is to just start listing stuff like a mad thing, right? Well.........maybe not.

Are you too old for this shit? - the downside of being established

I have noticed in my research that shops who are suddenly doing poorly despite once being successful are often what we call ‘Etsy old-timers’ - they’ve been around for some years and so have their listings. I theorise this could this be an element as these shops are likely to have a lot of listings that have been around for quite some time, which is bad. Let me explain...

In the Etsy-published article on sale downtimes, one of Etsy’s ‘tips’ for boosting sales was to make sure your inventory was fresh and to add new product lines. While they allude to trends and returning customers (and while keeping things fresh is a great idea) it could also be theorised that brand new listings will get you better search rank than your old listings you've been renewing forever.

Andhere's where we come back to listing quality. We know that new listings from new shops get a small boost when they first appear (I call this the Honeymoon Effect), but new listings in established shops are placed in search based on how that shop's other listings perform in their searches. This means your listings are all affecting each other - giving your shop something of a 'grade point average' in search performance.

Now let's think about how this applies to a shop full of older listings. Etsy considers fresh shops/listings as ‘better’ because they’re likely to be more relevant to what shoppers want. They also want to keep the popular, constantly selling stuff up there too. In order for this to happen, after a while listings start to fade in their quality so that the fresher/popular stuff can better leap-frog ahead. So the fact that a listing has over a thousand views and 600 hearts in it's 9 months of existence means nothing... if it’s not hearted/purchased enough to keep its ranking 'fresh' - the listing starts to decline in quality and gets out-ranked by the more successful listings from other sellers.

It therefore stands to reason that if your listings have a low performance overall, it's unlikely your new listings will rank any better. This would further go to explain why people claim that they've been listing things like mad and still not getting any improvements.

This applies to 'quantity of 1' listings just as much as multi quantity, which of course also means vintage sellers. It also might affect some who sell at very high price points in a saturated category - a perfect example is jewelry, where a search for 'moonstone ring' can bring results from $3 to $10k. If enough people are clicking on an expensive listing just to admire the piece but never intending to buy, they could be dragging down that listing quality.

But there's another spanner in the works here- best-selling listings that keep regularly getting attention will keep doing well only in as long as it can stay on top of the pile. But if you sell something that's easy, quick and/or cheap to make you'll find it harder and harder to stay on top. Why? Because you're being pushed out by competition.

Competition and the decline of listing quality

Competition appears on Etsy at an alarming rate; then again it’s not really that alarming when you consider the site is A - astonishingly easy to register a shop on, B - there's no ‘doorman’ to ensure you comply with site rules, and C - it costs so little to 'fill' your shop ($4.80 gets you a page worth).

The kind of shop who gets copied is the kind of shop who is selling something that's quick and easy to make, but also has a product with a wide appeal. Wide appeal markets are tough to stay buoyant in because they're such tasty bait to people who are ready to exploit the market. From what I've observed, most high seller shops complaining of the drop-off make something that’s easy to copy. The easier it is for you to make your stuff, the easier it is for someone else to come along and do it too.

Imagine a shopper coming along like they always have and searching to find a listing for a certain thing, say for example, a stamped ‘bridesmaid’ pendant in sterling silver.  They spy the established shop’s listing, click on it… then instead of buying it, they just heart it and go back to search to see what else is around - they want something cheaper, bigger, better shipping... whatever. They find another shop’s listing and they buy it.

For the shop who was passed over, that click did them more harm than good; the newer shop now has better rank simply because it was the one that was clicked and purchased. Where once they ruled the roost, the established shop’s listing slips down the rank as Etsybots consider it ‘not as relevant’. For every click the listing gets that doesn’t end up as a heart or sale, it adds dead weight. Meanwhile the other shop is out-ranking you with listing quality, and if they're a new shop they're also in their honeymoon boost period - it's like a double bonus for them.

If you're concerned this describes you, try researching how popular (read: competitive) your keywords are. I've noticed also that people complaining of sudden sales dives are selling with keywords that are highly popular such as gemstone jewelry or crochet patterns. While there's endless variety to the products within those keyword fields, much of it is going to have more competition simply by way of not being unique enough to be a stand-out offer. For example, I can search 'amethyst and rose quartz earrings' but how many of them are going to be much the same thing; a couple of beads on a hook? (Hint: a lot.)

The more niche and unusual your product is, the better chance you have at succeeding on The New Etsy. If you don't want competition, make something that can't be copied; if you want to earn a living, sell to a market that brings enough revenue for you, but not so large that others come sniffing. Find the niche in your product and get your keywords reflecting that niche. The answer to a good Etsy search result is strong keywords - Etsy still maintains good tags and titles are the best way to be found, and I agree. This is especially evident in one aspect of search which I'll talk about later.

Etsy has also recently introduced a feature where you can hide your past sales. If you’re a shop that makes something over and over again using simple materials and which has a broad market appeal you would probably do well to hide your sales. Most are using it to prevent shooting themselves in the foot; they argue that having visible sales is like doing the research for other people wanting to get into selling that thing... and I have to say I agree. Being able to see what sells well makes it astonishingly easy for new shops to get on board.

The New Etsy Policies

For those who don’t know, Etsy's new look allows you to adopt 'pre-written' policies they provide for you. They claim these are great to use because they are short and to the point, and they say they have research that shows buyers are put off by long and detailed fine print (again - the build their house on data). These auto-policies cover all the subjects you need to cover in a way that's Etsy approved and there's an FAQ section you can add any additional policies to.

Most shops I see who say they are doing fine have the new policies; most who are suddenly having problems have their own policies. This is something I've noticed with frequency - enough to conclude it's having an effect. I do at least know that Etsy have confirmed if you adopt these canned policies, you get a boost in search. Which is just a positive way of saying 'if you don't use, you lose'. While your own policies help you get a boost in search over those who have no policies at all, using Etsy's policies will get you even better results. 

It's not known how much of a boost you get, but of course wouldn’t you know it, new shops that sign up on Etsy have to use the new policies - they don’t get a choice. So now, new shops are getting a Honeymoon boost in rank and a boost from their site-provided policies. Established shops were given the option to adopt the new policies, thus giving high-selling shops a chance to keep their search rank - after all, why wouldn't you? No one who makes great money on Etsy is going to leave in a huff just because they need to simplify their policies.

The new policies aren't fancy by any stretch, in fact they're basic to the point of coldness. But most of the big shops don’t need fancy policies; they sell what they sell in a simple and quick manner, don’t have ‘complicated’ buying requirements and will refund you for any problem. Which of course Etsy loves as it's a 'high quality customer experience'. Any shop that's complicated for a buyer to understand is a worry for Etsy - they want all buyers on the site to be 100% happy all the time.

Often transactions go bad due to customers misunderstanding; to Etsy, the customer's inability to understand what's going on is irrelevant. Customer experience is king - no matter how at fault that customer was, if the experience was bad it was bad. And in the new look your feedback is much more noticeable than it was, meaning people work just that little bit hard (read: pander to the customer) while living in terror of anything less than 5 stars. (Sounds like another 'e' site we know...)

Boosting all shops with the auto-policies does something else Etsy considers very important - it keeps popular, fresh content up where you can see it. If Etsy give new shops their Honeymoon boost and policy boost while also allowing uncomplicated high sellers to take on policies and earn consistent listing quality, then that fresh and popular content is more likely to be the majority of results in the first 15 pages.

One more thing - and this thing is certainly no less valuable for having been left until last; in fact I think this is probably the most important thing. Etsy recently tested buyer behaviour to determine if showing them results tailored to their history would improve their likelihood of purchasing. I can't find any confirmation that this has gone beyond testing but this quote seems to confirm it has:
"Clickstream data doesn't have a lot of information about the user who is doing those clicks. It’s just information about their path through the site at that time. To really get a value-add on that, you want to be able to join on your user details tables, so that you can know where this person lives, how old they are, or their buying history in the past. You need to be able to join those, too, and we do that in HPE Vertica."
That quote is from this article, which should give you some idea of the immense focus Etsy puts on data. It's Etsy's main goal to present search for the buyer as an 'experience' or 'discovery' rather than just returning mechanistically relevant results, which means predicting what people want to see. A while back though, Etsy realised that just because 100 other people liked that particular necklace, doesn't mean everyone will. So by tracking every individual user's browsing habit they 'learn' what you like and therefore want to see. Assuming of course everything you look at is something you're considering buying, which I know with myself it certainly isn't the case!

In simple terms it means every search result shown on Etsy will be different, because it brings results based on what that person has historically shown interest in. Which means you have no idea what-so-ever where you're placed on any given search, only that your listing's relevance is based on whatever else that buyer has viewed/hearted in the past. They already do it with suggested shops and items in your home page feed, but now it looks like it happens in search as well.

You might think this renders everything useless, showing just how little control we have over our listing placement. In fact it's actually quite helpful, provided you're using your keywords properly. This discovery method shows the browser items from shops they've visited and bought from as well as listings they click on, heart and buy. The listings are of course matched up based on the thing Etsy recommends as the most important factor - tags and titles.By having your tags and titles both accurate and targeted toward the kind of person you sell to, you'll benefit from that.

Complicated huh? Quite frankly if you read all that and your brain is still with us, you deserve a medal; but I didn't want to do all this research and then give you a 'top ten tips' type post that doesn't teach you why I think this and what it means to not do it... or even assumes I'm right. And as I said earlier, none of this is gospel - what works for me might not work for you.

And really, with all those theories under our belt, in truth I think it’s all a bit pointless. If they work - great! But how long will they work for?  We spend hours and hours learning how to operate the system, and by the time you’ve got your finger on it a change has been implemented site wide and it changes all over again. In addition to that, there are tests going on all the time - Etsy makes hundreds of tiny changes to the site every day; how many of them affect the way search is displayed is unknown, but likely to be a great percentage since their main goal is to build buyer activity. 

The frustrating truth is that virtually nothing about how you get into search is within your control beyond a bit of SEO and adopting 'boost factors' like an About page and new policies. Etsy’s search is a complicated beast now - more sophisticated than ever and operating based on each individual's interests. It’s been a great ride for many, but eBay manipulates search, Amazon manipulates search, Google manipulates search… it would seem that we’re not suddenly experiencing terrible times, we are simply all arriving at the end of the line because Etsy has finally gathered enough data to start doing what everyone else has been doing for years.

And that’s why it hurts so badly. All this time Etsy have billed themselves as a place for the little guy, the humble maker who wants to earn a living with what they do. They bill themselves as a friendly corner where everyone really cares about you and your success… and now very suddenly it’s a whole new playing field. And you better get real popular, real quick.

But while I think it’s important to talk about all that stuff, it doesn’t really matter how much we understand about the Etsy algorithm (this week) or how it got to be what it is now, all that matters is what we do going ahead from today onward.

So here comes the bad news. As far as I’ve been able to discover, there is no golden answer to getting your sales and search rank back. I can't give you a 'top ten things to get good search rank on Etsy' because the elements are just so interconnected. You can list like you mean it...but if you've got low listing quality on other listings, you might not get anywhere. You could sharpen your SEO, but if your keywords are highly competitive it might not matter. You could release a new product range... but your listing quality might affect it and it'd probably only work if you've got return customer potential.

I read a lot of Etsy source material where lately they've taken to putting some pretty strong clues about what kind of shop gets by on Etsy. I've recently noticed the pattern of 'fresh product' over and over again, talk of replacing and adding to your inventory. Exhibit A is this article, where the seller talks about changing what she sells on a regular basis - right now she has clothing, lingerie, accessories, jewelry and home decor.  No surprise - she's not a one-woman show and she utilises Etsy allowable manufacturing.

That shop's process is what Etsy want you to do, and it's not just that article; the seeds of the same advice are lately in every article they publish. When what you sell stops selling, change what you sell; the product type, design, trend point, quality etc. Etsy is pushing to be a favourable site for shops that are willing to change their inventory if and when they need to; whatever gets the buyer in the door.

Etsy now is not Etsy as you knew it; the change hasn't been sudden - 3 years ago I wrote a huge article on Etsy's intent to favour the multi-quantity listing and it's moving from handmade to... well whatever they call it now. Manufacture-assisted design? Anyway, I took it down about a year ago because it was attracting spam like nobody's business, but I'm sad to say it played out just as I said it would; pushing out quirky, unique handmade and favouring whatever can be made in as factory-level like output as possible.  I warned things would get very bad if sellers continued to be innocent of Etsy's changing face, and I wish I had been wrong. I really do.

I feel like I haven't left you with a lot of good news (especially if you're not a seller who's happy to just 'go where the money is'), but then again there might be many of you reading this who feel a new wave of enthusiasm. Really this article was for all sellers, the purpose to explore and inform you of the mechanics of the Etsy machine. At least hopefully you understand a little more now and can govern yourself accordingly depending on what kind of shop you have. Believe it or not I’m not an expert on this stuff, I’m just one person trying to figure out how to succeed for the benefit of others as well as myself.

Of course, we have to remember one thing. All of this really only applies to shops who rely on a good portion (if not all) of their traffic to come from Etsy search. There are many on the forums who say they've had enough of it and are moving to another marketplace or their own website. If you're considering leaving, please understand that Etsy is 'easy living' when it comes to traffic! All you have to do is list things and people show up. With the addition of the community to be a part of, you really can't ask for a better launching pad for a self-run business. Whatever Etsy's problems are, they are just a platform - the rest is up to you.

Other marketplaces like Zibbet and Artfire have a tiny flow of traffic in comparison to Etsy, and having your own standalone (Shopify, Big Cartel, Squarespace etc) means you're 100% responsible for your own traffic generation through social media and targeted advertising. If you can accomplish that, why even leave Etsy? It's the traffic driving that has the power there, not the platform. The reasons for leaving Etsy should be things like high fees (for a high volume seller), price cutting competition or no mailing list options. A 'crappy' search is certainly no reason to uproot.

The nutshell is this: if you make an effort to become a high quality shop with unique, desirable, well made goods that cannot easily be replicated, polish your brand, understand your customer and use your social media properly (by which I do not mean just update it when you add new stuff to the shop), then you can - and should - happily roll the entire 'how to show up on search' thing into a tight little ball and pitch it out of the window. Which one is more work? That really depends on what kind of shop you are, how close you are to your product and above all what you consider 'work'.

And that I’m afraid is where my Etsy advice ends today - and where my general Etsy advice gets thin on the ground. I do intend to keep talking about the business of handmade but I don't want to get any further into Etsy's mechanics or hoop jumping - I'm firmly on the side of pitching it out the window. In my view there are much more efficient and authentic ways of selling genuine handmade, with or without Etsy.

That authentic stuff is what I’ll be focusing my future content; aiming squarely at those with whom I have the most empathy and ‘been there’ experience - high creatives, small batch artisans, OOAK makers and people who have a strong emotional/moral attachment to what they do. People who make what they make because it's an intrinsic part of who they are. People who are not 'Etsy perfect'.

If you don’t consider yourself that kind of shop and feel like it’s the end of the road here in regards to useful info for you, I am genuinely sorry. I’m always happy to help anyone, but there is no 'one size fits all' in handmade business. In order to truly help to a level that is practical and applicable I have to focus on one kind of seller, and it’s best to go with what I know and love. But fear not! There are others you can turn to and I’m going to recommend them based on the level of personal and emotional connection you have to what you do.

If your work is naturally a part of who you are and you feel every part of your life relates back to it in some way (and not just because you work at it 24/7!) you should stick with me. I'll be taking you to a place where there are no SEO nightmares, you don't have any competition and your social media process is a breeze - and more importantly, a place where all of that crap up there about Etsy does not apply.

It'll be a thorough process- I don't consider where my business is now to be anywhere near what it should be so you'll be witnessing a step-by-step 'makeover' as I apply everything I've learned in the last 3 years while sharing how you can do it too. But you have to be a certain kind of maker... Much more on that in the next post.

If you are connected to your work and you feel it’s a passion, but you also know that business is business and you’re highly flexible and whatever you can do to improve, you will do it - even if that means radically changing what you sell… go to Jess from Create and Thrive. She has a fantastic website full of clear, practical (and free!) info for building a whole branded business. Her podcast is awesome and her paid membership 'The Thriver Circle' has even more. I've seen it, it's good and it's a ridiculously cheap $15 a month. There’s also Abby Glassenberg from While She Naps; she focuses on quilting and sewing but also general creative business stuff and has a very honest approach like myself, callin’ it like it is.

If your handmade business is strictly a business just like any other job would be, and you don’t care what’s involved or where you have to change as long as you make your monthly sales, Mei Pak from CreativeHive focuses very strongly on this aspect of running a creative venture. She has a no nonsense approach that many of you may find highly motivational.

These three are ones I'm comfortable recommending and are probably the ones closest to what I will be offering. But really, no one is offering what I am going to offer. My approach is left of centre, thinking out of the box and colouring outside the lines. This is no surprise really, being that I’ve always been that way and the makers I try to help are exactly the same. I'm weird, and so is my tribe.


Lisa S at Sunset Seams said...

Thanks so much for this post! I've been waiting for the follow-up to the first post (which I had to read through about three times). This is excellent advice, and I really appreciate your perspective. My Etsy of 4 years store suffered dramatically in April 2016, and it was a shock to the system to suddenly receive half my regular income. Thanks for your thoughtful analysis. I'm also impressed that you recommend Jess from Create & Thrive (I did one of her on-line courses a few years back), and Abby from While She Naps (who I've followed for some time). I'll look up the third recommendation. Keep doing what you're doing! Cheers, LIsa from 23Jul16

Penelope said...

@Lisa thank you so much for your kind words - and yes I'm happy to link to Jess, Abby and Mei - they are all very good at what they do. :)

Joel said...

I learned a few really good ideas from your post, especially the part of multiple listings that renew. I have been rather lax on this, -seldom do I list an item that has more than 2 or 3 items available. I guess filling as many pages as possible looked good to me at the time. Now I need to do renewing multiple listings...

MetalRocks said...

I couldn't agree more! Every aspect you touched on - cloned by research and opinions. Will check out your links! Still have a good amount of work ahead but a full-time job is just that! One foot in front of the other! Thank you for writing - feel less alone! :-)

Ally said...

Terrific information and writing. Thanks for sharing your analysis and thoughts. Your previous post greatly informed my attitude and approach, and this one will as well. Wishing you great inspiration with your creative endeavors!

Sheryl Lamoureux said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to do all this research and sharing it with all. Just goes to prove that despite what Etsy corporate does, there is still a community of Etsy people, who rather than fight it out for sales, band together to create a place where we work together for our collective good.

Gerry Thrush said...

Lisa, great article. I don't remember all of your first article b/c at that time I was in the process of creating my own website & making sure my titles & tags were as relevant as I could make them so what I read didn't fully register or stick in my head.

This article has brought out something I haven't tried, don't renew items, list them as new ones again. I'm going to try that. It should be easy to do with the copy listing feature to get a new items number.

Just wanted to make a small comment & give you my email addy so I don't miss future articles from you. Thanks Lisa.


Jenny said...

Thanks once again Penny for sharing so much of your time and insights! Your research is much appreciated and particularity love, your left of center, out of the box and colouring outside the lines attitude. Look forward to learning and reading more:)

Trevor Harvey said...

Good article, certainly given me some food for thought.... as a recent Etsy (non) seller I think I have some work to do...

Many thanks...

sherri s. said...

THANK you for all for all of the time and effort that went into this detailed analysis. I am a "long-time" Etsy seller (since 2008 in one shop, 2011 in the other). I sell vintage (sewing items in one, general whatnot in the other), and my shops have both become dead in the water, for the most part. I often complain to my long-suffering husband about all things Etsy, and this at least gives me some back-up ammo (smiley face) to let him know that it's not just idle naysaying on my part! I do think vintage has now been disadvantaged on Etsy...alas, there isn't really another good platform for selling vintage in a shop format. But, onward! Thanks again.

Prairie Primitives Folk Art said...

"... really have an aspiration to grow their business."

That would be me. I've been trying to grow my business for many years. Once in a while I have a decent year, but I don't think Etsy is doing anything to help me grow my business, as far as Etsy goes. Nine months of the year (February thru October), I'm lucky to get an average of 2 orders per week. November thru January have been better for 3 consecutive years now ... and I can only hope that at least those months continue to be decent!

Patty Villanova said...

As always, thanks for a fantastic article. In this day and age it's rare to find anyone who has the mental capacity for research, analysis and writing ability that you obviously have.

I sell vintage and my own handmade products so am one of the sellers who's been very much affected by all the changes you've discussed. I don't depend on Etsy for my livelihood, but I sure can use every sale that I get. I have been using an outside promoter for social media and she is truly amazing. She is the only reason I have the views and sales that I do get, or so it seems.

I look forward to reading your next articles as always and wish you the best luck in all your endeavors. Thanks for sharing!

Mei said...

What a CRAZY in-depth article on the Etsy matter, Penelope. I think you addressed so many points succinctly. I've been with Etsy since 2008 but had always built my own brand on my own domain. I look at Etsy as a means to an end, and I'm always so motivated and impressed to find so many people having success in just using Etsy alone.

The concept of Etsy being a marketplace is a double edged sword. On the one hand, it's amazing to have instant access to millions of eager buyers who are already in the buying frame of mind. They're looking for something specific and they're ready to buy now.
On the other hand, even though there's competition everywhere, Etsy doesn't give you a whole lot of tools or options to help your Etsy shop stand apart from competitors. It's *too* easy to hop over to someone else's shop who's selling similarly perceived items for a fraction of the price.

I would not want to be Etsy. They serve completely different goals: 1) helping sellers succeed and 2) helping buyers find what they want. Both goals counter each other and it's impossible to strike a balance that keeps everyone happy.

I was speaking with a client yesterday who had consistent sales on Etsy in the last two years when she started. And this year, she's barely making one sale a month even though she hasn't made any drastic changes AND she's getting thousands of views a day.

So while Etsy is a great and really easy place to start a shop, it has never been the best option for building a business that you want to turn into a full time income.

And honestly, I can NEVER keep up with all the algorithm changes on Etsy. My brain just doesn't work that way. I'm no Etsy expert, but I'm in constant awe at people who are always on top of Etsy. I can think of a thousand and one other things to do than to fiddle around with my listings in hope that they will catch on to page one of Etsy search.

Change can be scary but exciting at the same time. Good luck with everything! Your jewelry is beautiful.

P.S. Thank you for mentioning me! It means so much, you have no idea! :-)

Anonymous said...

A ton of time and thought put into this analysis. Thank you so much for sharing!

I completely agree with your point made in the "Competition and the decline of listing quality" section. For the past 4 years I've run a shop that has consistently produced $120K revenue each year, until about a year ago, where sales dropped off to about $30K/year.

As you've describe, the items that I sell are in a very popular product category and the product that I sell is easy to be copied. In the past, I differentiated myself by purchasing a $40K machine which allows me to make the same product as my competitors, but out of a much better material. This made my product unique, better quality, and allowed me to charge a premium price for the product.

Within the past year a competitor sprung up, whom is using the same machine/material as me. They manufacture overseas, so they have priced their product to undercut me by 50%. However, my shop is better in every aspect (Aesthetics of the product,SEO, About Us, Product Photos, Selling History, Reviews, Years in Business, Ect...). Essentially, by past Etsy ranking criteria I SHOULD be outranking them every time. I used to rank multiple times on every page, but now I don't even show up in the first 10 pages of search. In comparison, this shop now ranks multiple times on every page of search.

After reading your article it made perfect sense to me. Shoppers must be viewing or <3 my listings, but then continue to shop around and finally purchase from this new competitor because they are priced so much lower. In Etsy's eyes, this means that my listings are not relevant to the search term and therefor they have lowered my search ranking. This is somewhat similar to bounce rate and dwell time for traditional SEO.

From this example it would seem that manipulating Etsy search results are completely out of our hands. The only option for me would be to find an overseas manufacturer to produce my items cheaper and allow me to compete on price. This would allow me to have a higher view to purchase ratio and should theoretically increase my search ranking on Etsy.

Penelope said...

@Anon - it breaks my heart that you would do that! Business is business of course, but if you pride yourself on being able to make your own product, you should stick to it if you can. You could promote yourself as a premium product, become known as the best and make the others look like cheap knock-offs. There's a lot of people out there for whom the checkout price is not the ultimate decider. *coughMEcough* :)

Penelope said...

@Mei it was my pleasure! I truly think of you as 'one of the good ones'. ;)

Thank you so much for your awesome comment - I agree very much on Etsy's double edge sword status and on the algorithm time suck! Tinkering with my tags/titles is my least favourite online chore and really shouldn't be so hard! It messes with your head too - did I get it right? should that word be 3rd or 4th? Should I use this one instead? ARG. Death to Etsy SEO.

Prairie Primitives Folk Art said...

It breaks my heart too! If you're proud of your "Made in America" product (not sure you said you were in the U.S., so that may be an assumption), then keep going with what you're doing.

Is your SEO *really* awesome? Many old-timers still have one-word tags, for example, because they've built up such a following and/or mailing list that they haven't needed to rely on Etsy SEO. But then something like this happens and whoops, maybe their SEO needs to be better after all? Just a thought.

Louise said...

Penny, you're totally amazing. Thank you so much, for the time taken in researching and writing and publishing this important post. I'll book mark it and re read over the coming days to take it all in. <3

Mrs. A. said...

Very interesting.

Mrs. A. said...

Very interesting.

Claudia Karba said...

Excellent post.
its inspired for me
I care for such info much. I was looking for this information for
a very long time. Thank you and good luck

Missbaltimore said...

Very interesting post. I really appreciate and admire your in depth research and the theories you have crafted.

I sell vintage-- mostly handbags but also some clothing and jewelry-- and have been on Etsy since early 2012. I was slowly and steadily adding inventory, picking up views and favorites and ultimately making sales. By last winter I was doing better than I had ever done and when my stats and sales continued after Christmas I thought I could really start to rely on this as (part of) my regular monthly income. I started tracking my stat numbers every day that I received more than 200 views or 20 favorites (or both) which was high for me, and from what I've read it is a pretty respectable number for many etsy shops. I found that I was reaching one or both thresholds every few days until the last week of March 2016. Since then all of my stats have plummeted and only this week have I had a day with more than 100 views. And that's the record for the last six months running!

I suppose I could change my policies to adopt their standard policy. I haven't actually read their standard policy but I will look it up tonight. In the meantime your article confirms what I had been suspecting but makes me disparaged none the less. I won't give up my day job anytime soon.


Peter said...

Thought provoking, informative article. My head is still grasping it all so I can't make a lot of specific comments. Adopting Etsy policies was an eye opener, for sure. I have been tweaking mine as of late and keep seeing their comment about adopting their policies and I keep/kept ignoring it thinking it was irrelevant but apparently not. And that's just ONE point. I's their way or the highway. That's not at all what I thought Etsy was about. I have talked with a friend recently how "tweaking" tags and titles really means making your stuff appear just like everybody elses. Bye bye creative fun listing text or title. It is a corporate, robotic structure. Maybe less than other sites, I'm not good at comparison/making lists/data research. My brain just doesn't work like that. What your article drives home is that dreamers need not apply. It's a reflection of our whole world, really. We are becoming a colder and colder place, I believe, and money is a big reason for that. Oh gee, now I'm getting philosophical. Well, I'm off to "tweak" some tags and bow down before some Etsy policies. Cheers folks, good luck. Peter

Penelope said...

Peter, thank you for your comment - I've been feeling the same way about things regarding dreamers. The creative spirit is being squashed in favour of trends and manufacturing; long gone are the days of 'keep it weird'! But I don't want to live in that kind of world, so I'm working on ways high creativity can take pride of place, even in corporate hollow worlds. :)

Marjan said...

Quite a read. Gives a better understanding of the process we are all part of. I always keep in mind that Etsy wants to make a lot of money, so I understand intuitively why and this try to act on it.
Marjansart (I make one off unique paintings and am a bit penalized by Etsy and the ranking)

Late Blooming Bohemian said...

I have a large "successful" vintage store on Etsy. Over 8000 sales in around four years. Each year I grew my store profit by double until September 2015, sudden slow, then April 2016 another drop. Now all of a sudden my profit is 1/3rd what it was a year ago. A major factor is most of my customers are overseas, not in Australia, mostly USA but Etsy now make my items highly visible ONLY to Austalians. It population on Etsy is too small so my exposure is much less now. All my work, time, money invested and I had no say in this or any other massive change. I'm sticking with it now as I'm so invested with so many listings but if a quality large vintage only alternative appears I will start up there. There doesn't seem to be a good alternative yet. Until this year I was making an actual living off my etsy store, a r w al income.

Penelope said...

@late blooming bohemian - thank you for your comment, I agree the position of being a vintage dealer located outside the US has suddenly become a very lonely one! Etsy maintains the US doesn't see results with a localisation filter but your experience (and mine and many others besides) has me convinced otherwise.

More research to be done on that but in the meantime and beyond, this is one of the biggest reasons why we need social media, so we have more control over where our traffic comes from!

Anonymous said...

I am a vintage seller with a fairly small but moderately successful shop. Until late October of this year my sales had been growing slowly. I was expecting my holiday season to be terrific and bustling like last year's and to my grave disappointment, November has been a huge bust with significant drop in sales. I really don't know what to do. I read the forums regularly as if I am reading tea leaves trying to find an answer to my shop's slipping sales. I really, really appreciate your post. While I am not sure I understand everything you have said in it - I do think it has given me some good information. That said - I do feel so much about my shop is out of my control. It is also so confusing because of the constantly changing Etsy environment. I am sending good thoughts out to my Etsy brothers and sisters. I hope they send some positive vibes back to me.

Danalia BYDP said...

Absolutely love this article.Thanks for all of the information!

I thought it was just me! I have been selling mostly swimwear on Etsy since 2010. Had HUGE growth in sales in 2012 and have seen 50% to 100% increases in sales every year. That is until 2016. April -June, which is normally my peak season , didn't even do half as much as the year before. I thought my product was just "stale" or not trendy enough.
I didn't realize the drop in sales was happening to so many other people.

@Late Blooming Bohemian's comment also made me realize I am seeing the same effect with international sales, specifically in Austrailia. I used to have lots of Australian customers order swimsuits during the US fall/winter so I had this nice little (albeit smaller) consistent flow of orders during my "off/slow" season. But now, I have lost basically all of that last year and this year so far.

Will definitely be following you and keeping my eye on those others you linked to as well. Thanks!!

Buffalo Gal said...

Wow, I've been searching for an article like this and thank you for taking the time to research and compose. I'll have to sleep on this and re-read. I'm exhausted but the wheels are slowly turning. I'm experiencing " the pattern" I have been and keep talking about it and I was rendered crazy. All the SEO talk again, makes me feel I'm an idiot missing the clear picture making it all too complicated. But it is complicated. You've affirmed for me , I'm a little crazy but not far too gone. Looking forward to the next post.

Maria said...

Thank you Sparrow Salvage!! This is fantastic!! Soooooooo much helpful information!! It is so important for all of us online sellers to do our research and keep up with the changes. Happy selling everyone :-) Maria #vintageeclectica

Tabi Ferguson said...

Thank you for such a well thought out and researched article. I had also been experiencing the pattern, but had no idea of it's existence. Last year I had thought I been diligently posting but my online sales had fallen. Without a few key repeat customers, my sales would have been down more than 30%. I knew renewed items no longer reappeared at the top of listings, but not the rest of it. I also close my shop for part of the year as we travel so now Etsy likely views my shop more as a hobby than I would like. I have been looking in to other platforms for that will allow my online brand to grow in different areas and allow me to tell my story much more than Etsy's framework though it will likely come at an increased cost. I expect it will take me some time to transition. Thank you again for your insight.

Anonymous said...


Does this mean that there is not much point in renewing items as they do not show up higher?
Also, should I completely resist older listings that have not sold with new pictures etc... even though I might lose views and favorites they may have accumulated?
I sell vintage and had been selling an average of two sales per day for several years. Last two weeks only four sales. Am I out of favor?

Penelope said...

Anonymous - renewing won't help boost your listing in it's search result no, but it does do *something* I'm sure as I have found the days I renew listings seem to be better for views/hearts. I've yet to organise myself to test this properly though.

Relisting older listings as a new listing with different photos may help, all you can do is test it. When I tried it, I found totally reworking the title was necessary otherwise they just flop. Tried it on eBay and got the same result.

The hearts/views you lose may not be doing any good anyway if they're old - and if there's a ton of them they may be hurting.

I wouldn't worry about being 'out of favour' though! If you want to make more sales there are several things you can do - I can't see your shop but if you want to convo me over at sparrowsalvagestudio on etsy I can take a peek. :)