On April 21, 2020, Google announced that Google Shopping results would be free by the end of April.
This change not only reveals a lot about the current economic climate created by COVID-19 (and Google’s longer-term goals). It also reveals a lot about the value of SEO.
Before we can fully appreciate the parallels between free Google Shopping results and SEO, we need to understand what the Google Shopping tab is — where it comes from and where Google is taking it.
Google Shopping, which you can find at shopping.google.com (recently redesigned) or by selecting the “Shopping” tab after conducting a regular Google search, is a Google service that allows customers to find relevant products from a variety of retailers.
Google Shopping has been around for two decades but hasn’t been free for 8 years. Google was already planning on making the Shopping tab free again, likely to better compete with the likes of Amazon, but advanced those plans when COVID-19 hit.
“People tend to consider Google’s recent announcement as a jump into the past when Froogle, their shopping property, was entirely free,” said Lengow CMO Frederic Clement, “but that’s not the case, although it’s still an interesting move.”
He continued, “Current advertisers may experience a small decrease in spending (if any!), as the Shopping tab accounts for a very small share of clicks. However, we may expect a more significant impact on the market, as it will bring more products to Google’s inventory.”
Google Shopping is powered by product data feeds uploaded to the Google Merchant Center. Previously, retailers had to pay for placement on Google Shopping, but Google Shopping will now consist primarily of free listings.
According to Rick Kenney, VP of Growth & Success at Zaius, “The move to make product listings free is another in a series of moves laser-focused on top-of-funnel thinking.”
He added, “The real prize – and one that brands and Google can collaborate to win – is to evolve beyond pure session-related thinking towards full-journey customer-centricity. Assisting brands to get to know the 89% of visits from anonymous shoppers is Google’s path to the top of Commerce and will boost brands’ DTC relationships.”
Google will still charge retailers for top placement (“promoted listings”) but the remainder of results will be free, which is exactly how regular Google search works right now — Google doesn’t charge websites to be included in Google’s index, but websites can pay for placement at the top of SERPs.
“The line between organic and paid traffic is becoming blurry,” commented Clement, “it’s therefore key to adopt the right tools to embrace it properly!”
According to Google, retailers can get their products into the free section of Google Shopping by opting their product feeds into the surfaces across Google program. Existing users are already eligible, but can add additional products to their product feed — retailers may not have been paying for every product to show up in Google Shopping, but can now add them for free visibility.
Product feeds are files that contain information about your product inventory. Each product on the feed has a variety of attributes that should be filled out in order to qualify for showing up in places like Google Shopping, such as image, title, description, availability, price, and more.
Marketplaces like Google Shopping use all this data to understand when and where your product listings should show up in search.
Just like SEOs optimize their pages to show up high on the SERPs for relevant searches, e-commerce teams can optimize their product feeds for different marketplaces like Google Shopping.
According to Google, ranking on Google Shopping is based on a combination of advertiser bids and relevance. So, when it comes to free listings, showing up for certain queries, and where, is dependent on relevance — just like traditional organic search results.
There’s been a lot of talk in the digital marketing world about Google making Shopping results free, but does this have anything to do with SEO?
While product feeds and Google Shopping have typically been e-commerce advertiser conversations, there are important implications for SEO.
In the announcement post, Google’s President of Commerce Bill Ready said, “For advertisers, this means paid campaigns can now be augmented with free listings.”
In other words, retailers can improve their visibility and purchases from Google Shopping by opting into free listings, but the benefit of pairing your paid and organic search strategies is something SEOs are already intimately familiar with.
Plenty of studies have shown that both paid and organic listings are more effective when they’re shown together on the SERP than either type of listing shown in isolation. That’s likely due to the halo effect, which says that an impression created in one area can influence opinion in another area.
The fact that Google is making a move to make Shopping tab listings free shows that free exposure is valuable and worth prioritizing.
In digital marketing, “free” has always been a bit of a misnomer though.
While you don’t have to pay for these clicks, the effort it takes to earn top spots in free results (which now includes the Google Shopping tab) isn’t free. If we want the benefits that free exposure can provide, we can’t take it for granted. We have to invest time and talent into optimizing what we want to perform well.
But the benefits are there. According to a Botify-commissioned thought leadership study from Forrester Consulting, while only 14% of enterprise executives can be considered SEO-mature (investing the appropriate time, talent, and resources into their SEO program), 91% of them say that SEO is one of their most profitable channels.
So, how can e-commerce teams optimize their product feeds to make the most of this newly-free exposure in the Google Shopping tab?
One way is to talk with the SEO team.
SEO teams have the keys to audience insights that have the potential to take e-commerce product feeds to the next level.
For one thing, SEOs have access to real-time searcher queries. This reveals what searchers are typing (or speaking) into their search bars, from what type of device, from what location, and how that’s changing on a daily basis — a goldmine for e-commerce teams.
When you know the exact ways your potential customers are searching, you can incorporate those into your product feed information.
SEOs also have access to structured data insights. If you’re able to pair your structured data insights with things like your rankings and clicks insights, you’ll be able to see what product qualities lead to a higher or lower click-through rate (CTR). That may help you decide which products are strategic and worth paying for placement, and which aren’t.
By Google making their Shopping tab free, consumers have access to more products than they did previously. In theory, this should make it easier than ever for them to find exactly what they want. This, according to Yext’s VP of Industry Insights Duane Forrester, has implications.
“Imagine a world where your customers are finding exactly what they want, when they want it. With this step, Google just made that even more of a reality, and consumers will come to expect this same level of access and information when they visit your website.”
In other words, when search engines improve, it conditions consumers to expect relevant results almost instantaneously — an attitude that may cause frustration when they expect Google-like results from your on-site search.
“We’ve all been taught how to search,” continued Forrester, “so when a consumer hits your website, and your site search fails them, they bounce to Google where someone else gets them what they want.”
E-commerce advertisers and SEOs not only need to work together. They also need to work with on-site experience teams to “capture customers in moments that matter, increase engagement, and drive more conversions,” said Forrester, else risk wasting the free traffic Google is sending you.
COVID-19 has hit plenty of companies hard. This is especially true for many retailers who’ve been swamped trying to supplement their lack of in-store purchases with 100% online sales.
What is Google suggesting as part of the solution? Free listings — something that’s already available to any website in Google search.
Brand revenues will always be at the mercy of outside events, meaning budgets will always ebb and flow. That’s all the more reason to invest in channels that don’t shut off as soon as you run out of budget.
Here’s to investing in earned placement so that all brands can reach their audiences, no matter what comes their way.