Etsy SEO and XWalk: Changes in Etsy Search Part 1

For Etsy sellers, being found in search results is one of the main benefits of selling on the platform. You can take advantage of the traffic that Etsy has, and sell to people who probably wouldn’t have found your merchandise otherwise.

However, the Etsy search algorithm is always changing, and since 2021 it’s seen big changes.

Etsy has been making a lot of small changes to the algorithm that decides where listings show up during the past couple of years.

I noticed some possible image recognition experiments as far back as 2018, so this has been in the works for quite a while.

The second quarter of 2021 seems to be when the new XWalk technology was put into place, and the high volatility that a lot of sellers saw as far as changing sales patterns around May, June and July of 2021 is probably related to that.

So what is XWalk, and why is Etsy using it for search placement now?

XWalk was described by Etsy CEO Josh Silverman in the 2021 Q2 earnings report as a “large-scale, real-time graph retrieval engine that provides more relevant search results and narrows the semantic gap, boosting conversion and repeat purchase rate for buyers.” This is a more complex way of finding and ranking search results that relies on multiple factors instead of only looking at word order matches. The goal of XWalk is to show customers listings that they would be interested in purchasing, as opposed to only the listings that match the search query.

Josh also stated that XWalk was in its early stages, and that it would eliminate no-result or low-result searches. It’s also intended to improve browsing and item suggestions for customers on Etsy.

He’s also mentioned in presentations since then, through 2022-2023, that Etsy uses multiple search engines that work with each other to perform different things when they’re deciding what to show in search results.

how etsy search works

How does Etsy SEO and ranking work?

SEO for Etsy has always been based on the title and tags information that sellers provide to describe their listings. Etsy has said that this is the most important information they have as far as determining the “meaning” of the listing, or what it is. However, recent additions to the ranking algorithm also take customer behavior (clicking, liking and buying listings,) and other things like photos into account.

This means that search results will look different to different people, and that there is no permanent “rank” for listings on Etsy. This has been true for a few years, but with the introduction of XWalk it’s even more pronounced.

On top of the lack of consistent placement in search results, sellers also have to deal with the lack of information that Etsy gives us as far as best practices for writing titles and tags.

The “How Etsy Search Works” page in the Etsy help section hasn’t been updated in a few years, and a lot of the information on it isn’t accurate anymore.

That makes a lot of people think that they should be doing things one way, when that’s not really needed anymore.

This makes it difficult for people like me, who like to try to figure this stuff out, because when we see that Etsy is doing something, people will point to the help section and say that isn’t right.

It also makes it difficult because until Etsy confirms something, it’s dangerous to assume that patterns you notice in search are permanent.

It could just be a test that will be gone tomorrow, so it’s important not to go too far off of what Etsy has confirmed even if it’s pretty obvious that it’s not what’s actually happening.

I put a keyword tracker/planner together, and it has some tips on how to decide about what keywords to use. It’s one way to do it, but there are many ways to research keywords and decide what information to give to Etsy.

The important thing is to be accurate so that the search engine can figure out what your listing is and how it’s related to other listings in the “graph.”

Please note: Some of the links on this page are affiliate links, which will give me a small commission at no cost to you if you buy something when you use them.

What is a Graph Retrieval Engine?

A graph retrieval search engine is basically a system that looks not only at individual words in a linear way, but also uses information about how the factors in the system relate to each other. The Etsy XWalk system is obviously looking at the keywords in the title and tags, but also looks at customer behavior and how listings and shops relate to each other. The information gathered will help the search engine decide how to position listings in search.

Think of it as a spiderweb instead of a straight line.

Before Etsy changed the system I was able to manipulate the search results to create a search result page with only one listing on it.

It was fairly simple to do because search was very linear and matchy-matchy, and you had to have the search query words in the title, tags, categories or attributes in order to show up on the page.

Sadly, my little party trick probably won’t work anymore, because Etsy is actively trying to eliminate that type of low-results search page.

The way they’re doing this is by making connections between listings, keywords, and even shops. This search was one that I found recently, where my listing used to be the only one, and now it has 159 results!

(As an aside, if you want to do these searches for yourself, the results that you’ll see will be different from these because Etsy will be using your personal information to help with the ranking process. I saw different results when I did the searches two days apart, so this is a very fluid situation! Click on the highlighted affiliate link keywords to go to the Etsy page with the search term to see what I mean, or do the searches from different browsers to test this out.)

This orange roses wafer paper listing has the word “ftumchuk” in it, which is a made-up word that nobody would search for on Etsy.

It used to be that by having it in the listing it would be the only listing on the search result page if you searched for “ftumchuk.”

Now Etsy has filled in the search result page with things that it THINKS is related to “ftumchuk.”

How is it making that connection? It sees that the listing is from my shop, the listing has the word “wafer paper” in it, and that my shop also sells wafer paper butterflies.

So it’s showing results that include a lot of wafer paper butterflies, both from my shop and from others.

This shows that it’s not only using the keywords, it’s using information about shop inventory to fill in the results so that the customer doesn’t just see one listing on the page.

There’s also a result from an artist whose name is sort of similar to the word “ftumchuk,” but it’s not so similar that it makes sense to show it for that result.

The connections aren’t that good all the time, but the idea is that it will get better as the machine sees what people click on after typing a term into search.

If it sees that people don’t click on a listing after it’s shown for a term it will eventually stop showing it for that term.

What happens if you get more specific with the weird search terms? Let’s see…Here I’ll search for “orange ftumchuk.”

In this case, it starts showing things it thinks are related to both of the words, apparently. There are only 56 results, and no ads in any of these results, either.

The interesting thing is that it’s also showing me things that are similar to things I was looking at recently, and some that I probably was but don’t remember looking at (I look at a lot of shops because of screening shops and doing reviews.)

I definitely did look at some felted things recently, so that’s why those are there.

What about an even more specific search? Let’s look at “orange roses ftumchuk” to see how far you have to go before you get back to only one result, or if you even will!

This time there are 125 results and there are a lot of orange roses showing up. But do you notice something else that’s interesting about this?

There seem to be a lot of photos that include orange colors that are similar to the colors in the wafer paper photo.

The results are mostly burnt orange, which is closer to the orange color in the wafer paper photo. Etsy isn’t just matching the words, it’s trying to figure out what’s specific to the “ftumchuk” listing that can be matched with the other ones.

If we just search for “orange roses” Etsy has an easier time, and brings back 221,347 results including ads, and the colors are a lot more varied.

Having the “ftumchuk” word in there is a conflict because Etsy is trying to match the listing that has it to the other similar listings, and it limits the options.

So what happens if we make a really long search query, which should bring back very limited results? I’ll search for “orange roses ftumchuk wafer paper.”

In this result, Etsy shows 229 listings, which is even more than the shorter “orange roses ftumchuk” queries.

That’s because adding “wafer paper” to the search term gives Etsy some more information. Now it’s showing not only orange things and roses, it’s showing wafer paper flowers and wafer paper with flowers on it.

The presence of the “ftumchuk” in the query is still limiting the number of things that Etsy is showing, but it’s drawing information and adding things to the search results based on the additional words instead of showing fewer results, which it normally would.

As a general rule, exact word order match is not required to rank highly in Etsy search, but it can be helpful to indicate relevance to the search engine. Exact word order is still listed in the “How Etsy Search Works” help manual article as an important piece of the search ranking algorithm. However, the Etsy search algorithm hasn’t required exact word order match in order to rank highly in search for quite some time.

As the search engine is able to develop more understanding of how listings are related, it will mean that the strategies around exact word order matching should also change.

In general, search engines prefer an exact word order match because it does show that the listing is probably more relevant to the search, so it’s still important to try to use keywords in an order that a lot of people search for.

It’s a safe thing to assume that without the actual words in your listing to match the words in search, your listing isn’t guaranteed to be shown in search results.

So you want to put a good variety of accurate keywords in your titles and tags, and find good word orders if you can.

Until Etsy says that matching in the title and tags isn’t really needed anymore, it’s best to match at least one good keyword in both places.

But what I’ve seen in the past year is that matching keywords in title and tags isn’t needed to be found on the first page of search.

If you look at the very first search result example above, you might notice something interesting…If the orange roses listing is the only one that has “ftumchuk” in it, shouldn’t it be the first result on the search result page?

It’s not, so that shows that having the exact words in the listing isn’t a guarantee that your listing will show up at the top of search. It never really has been, but this is a really clear illustration of that fact.

Should you match words in your titles and tags for Etsy SEO?

The Etsy help manual says that an exact word order match in title and tags for specific keywords is rated as a high relevance signal for the Etsy search engine. However, as Etsy search has changed over the past year or so, exact word order matches don’t seem to be as important as they used to be. As more factors are taken into account, and as Etsy’s search becomes better at understanding listings based on other factors, matching keywords in your title and tags isn’t as strong a placement factor as it once was.

In a recent investor presentation, Josh Silverman stated that Etsy search is in the process of being changed to show the customers what the search engines think the customer wants, and NOT what the words in the listing are!

Although this is a huge shift in the way that Etsy search works, it’s not far off from other search engines that try to predict results based partially on customer behavior.

So should you abandon all keyword matching? No, because search engines do generally prefer an exact word order match for relevance, but it’s not the whole ball of wax anymore.

There are so many other factors at play, it’s more that we need to think about Etsy search placement in a different way, rather than doing things in a different way.

I’m not changing much about the way that I do my keyword research for Etsy. I’ll still research things the same way, and I’ll still match one keyword between title and tags to be on the safe side.

The way that I do SEO has never been based on a formula or “tips and tricks,” so it’s not something that needs to be adjusted to adapt to the use of XWalk.

This is more of a shift in the way that Etsy sellers will need to think about SEO for their listings, but if you’ve been doing SEO the way I do it, you probably don’t have much to worry about.

Kara Buntin

Kara Buntin has run a profitable home-based business since 1999, and has a background in art, theater design, and cake decorating. She's a top Etsy seller with over 51,000 sales on Etsy and her own website, and helps other home-based business owners with their business goals and SEO. She founded the Artisan Shopping Directory website to promote the artisans who are members of her EShop Success marketing program.

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