Just a day before Google announced their move from Google Places to Google+ Local as their local platform, they announced that another one of their top products was getting a makeover and a new name as well. Google Product Search, a service that has allowed online merchants to list their products for free, is being replaced by Google Shopping, an all paid service that requires management through both the Merchant Center and Adwords. What this all means for online retailers remains to be seen, but it behooves business owners to learn the new system ASAP and understand why Google has made this change.
Danny Sullivan posted a detailed analysis of the new paid-only transition on May 31, the day that Google Commerce Blog made the announcement, much of which focused on the seeming hypocrisy of Google’s own claimed reasoning behind the move. For Google’s part, they’re saying it’s all about quality (emphasis mine):
First, we are starting to transition Google Product Search in the U.S. to a purely commercial model built on Product Listing Ads. This new product discovery experience will be called Google Shopping and the transition will be complete this fall. We believe that having a commercial relationship with merchants will encourage them to keep their product information fresh and up to date. Higher quality data—whether it’s accurate prices, the latest offers or product availability—should mean better shopping results for users, which in turn should create higher quality traffic for merchants.
But as Danny points out, this seems to be a complete 180 for Google:
Once Deemed Evil, Google Now Embraces “Paid Inclusion” is my column from yesterday at our sister site Marketing Land. It explains the history of Google’s past opposition to paid inclusion and its reversal over the past year. Of that history, I’ll highlight this part of Google’s 2004 IPO filing, which specifically talked about paid inclusion being bad in terms of shopping search:
Froogle [what's now called Google Product Search and will be called Google Shopping] enables people to easily find products for sale online. By focusing entirely on product search, Froogle applies the power of our search technology to a very specific task—locating stores that sell the items users seek and pointing them directly to the web sites where they can shop. Froogle users can sort results by price, specify a desired price range and view product photos.
Froogle accepts data feeds directly from merchants to ensure that product information is up-to-date and accurate. Most online merchants are also automatically included in Froogle’s index of shopping sites. Because we do not charge merchants for inclusion in Froogle, our users can browse product categories or conduct product searches with confidence that the results we provide are relevant and unbiased.
Google played semantics in the explanation they sent Danny, but the bottom line is that they’ve chosen to redefine what “paid inclusion” means, rather than acknowledge that the new Google Shopping does exactly what they themselves and the FTC have criticized in the past. Danny’s take-down is pretty thorough, though perhaps a little harsher than I would have been. In fairness, Google is at least labeling the new shopping results as “sponsored” when they show up above organics (and just below standard Adwords ads).
This actually takes me back to what prompted me to write this post. After reading Danny’s original analysis, I didn’t give it much thought, assuming there would be a slow roll-out, but then I was shocked to see the new-style product results appear for one of my own searches the other day. Surfing around deals.woot.com (for items I don’t need but will buy if they’re cheap enough) on Tuesday, as I often do at home on lunch, I ran across what seemed like an amazing deal on a 14 MP camera that takes HD video – the Kodak Z5010 for $79.99 at Ben’s Outlet. Upon spotting the deal, I did what I always do – I opened 2 new tabs – one to search on Amazon and then read reviews, and the other to Google for price comparisons and other reviews. Here’s what I saw in the latter:
Aside from the fact that I don’t see any Adwords ads for this search, there was just something off about the way the product results were being displayed. I think it’s mainly the outline, and of course the blue “i” with the circle around it right next to the word “Sponsored”. Again, product results weren’t paid results in the past so this disclaimer wasn’t necessary. Obvious curiosity forced me to click the little “i” and this is the message that popped up (emphasis mine):
Based on your search query, we think you are trying to find a product. Clicking in this box will show you the results from providers who can fulfill your request. Google may be compensated by some of these providers.
That last sentence is a bit curious given that Google Shopping is supposed to be becoming a 100% paid service for merchants, but looking back to Google’s announcement, I think this may be a message being used during the transition, while listing products remains free:
We’re giving merchants a few months to transition to this new model, and we’re also offering some incentives:
- All merchants who create Product Listing Ads by August 15, 2012 will automatically receive a monthly credit for 10% of their total Product Listing Ad spend through the end of 2012; and
- Existing Google Product Search merchants can receive $100 AdWords credit toward Product Listing Ads if they fill out a form before August 15, 2012.
To learn more and get started merchants can visit: www.google.com/ads/shopping
Side note: It’s a little deceptive to have a white background on “sponsored” results in the middle of the page, particularly on a search that includes Adwords ads which still have the yellow background. (See examples at the bottom of this post)
Anyway, it makes sense that they wouldn’t immediately drop everyone from product listings because that would have a dramatic negative impact on the quality of search results. While they haven’t explicitly stated a deadline for joining the paid service to get your products listed, the excerpt above indicates that they’re possibly looking at Aug. 15. Either way, I fear they run the risk of decimating their product listings, leaving only the big boys able to play. Decreased competition leading to eventual increased prices, etc. etc. Call me a pessimist, but I’m struggling to imagine how new start-ups or even small players will stand a chance when Amazon, Sears, Walmart and Target are dominating the landscape, backed with massive advertising budgets.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean to impugn these companies over their success. The beef here is with Google making it difficult for mom and pop to get found. Even in that case, Google has every right to do what they want to do, but the criticism comes down to what it always does when I take issue with local listing changes – relevancy of results. I completely understand Google’s claims that paid-only will weed out lower quality results, but I’m not sure it makes sense to filter out stores who don’t have the resources, time or money to keep their product feed up to date as much as they might like to. In many cases it’s amazing that some business owners found the time to learn enough to get their Google Merchant Center account and get their products listed at all. At the same time, if they can’t keep their product feed up to date, Google’s quality concerns make a lot of sense.
Quite a conundrum. I understand Google’s relevancy/quality points completely, but I fear the end result will be fewer options and higher prices. I’m not sure what the ideal solution would be. Danny Sullivan asks, but stops short of answering the question – “But There Was No Other Way?”. The best we get is boilerplate answer from Google:
“We’ve looked at a number of different aspects to approach this, but we have to evolve our experience. We believe consumers have a higher expectation of shopping online,” Samat said.
Danny goes on to post a specific question about what the actual implications are for product search results, followed by yet another vague reply from Google (emphasis mine):
Google told me that it currently has tens of thousands of merchants listed in Google Product Search for free. I asked if the company had any idea how that might change when payment is required or if there would be an impact on comprehensiveness?
“We really want all kinds of merchants to participate,” Samat said. But he also said, ”It’s hard to speculate on how this will play out. Our objective here is to deliver a better experience. We are doing a number of things to help the users’ experience get better.”
Danny wraps up in part by expressing some concern over what this might mean for other types of search, but I think we’re a ways away from that. I’m still not totally convinced they’ll follow through with paid only local offers and as I expressed earlier in this post, they run the risk of eliminating a lot of good sites from product search, so I wouldn’t be that shocked to see them reel this one back a bit either. Even now, I think it’s worth noting that when you look at the screen shot from earlier in this post and the few I’ll post at the end, they’re only showing a few results (from major companies), and leaving a lot of white space. Pressumably this is because only those major companies are currently paying. You can however see others if you click through to the full product results pages.
As it stands today though, Google’s plans are what they are and it’s time to pony up if you want to be featured in their product results, now known simply as “Google Shopping”. If you’re just starting out, you’ll likely have a lot to consider such as budget, how many products to feature, etc. so contact us today if you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of this. We’re of course happy to help if you already list your products on Google, but if you want to avoid any sales interruptions, we would recommend you start by following the instructions in this video to ensure your products aren’t dropped from search results:
In conclusion I’d just say that like a lot of the other rapid fire changes Google has made lately, it remains to be seen what the end result of this sea-change will be. Business owners need to quickly adapt but this thing could cook completely different than the current vision in just a matter of months. In the end, Google seems increasingly intent on forcing business owners to actively manage their online presence from social media and local listings to SEO and paid product listings. As a business owner, you simply can’t afford to just sit by and hope everything works itself out. At the same time, we understand that many of you don’t have the expertise or time to keep up with all of these changes, which is again why we’re always here to help. Drop us a line with any questions you might have.
For those simply looking for more information about how these results appear to the consumer, I’d like to provide a few more screen shots. I know I personally am not always seeing the new layout, and only saw it at all starting this week, so it’s likely that many of you haven’t seen it at all yet. Click any of the following images for the full size to see the direction SERPS are headed and take note of the helpful new filters (pricing, product type, etc.):