Google Shopping Has Evolved into a Serious eCommerce Platform

Brought to you by WBR Insights

According to a 2017 report by Segment, only 22% of customers are satisfied with the amount of personalization that eCommerce brands offer. Yet personalization in online retail matters. The same report reveals that personalization inspired 49% of consumers to buy unexpected items, while 40% have spent more than they anticipated and 44% are likely to become repeat buyers.

Amazon has recognized this importance for a while, with an AI-powered and personalized recommendation engine deemed responsible for generating at least 35% of the company’s entire revenue.

With Amazon taking persistent bites at its search ad dominance, Google has been playing catch up in this area for many years. But recently, the company has been fighting back with the rollout of Google Shopping — an online shopping experience that’s making a mark.

Roots in Visual Search and Google Lens

Historically, the core value proposition of Google has always been as a search engine. That hasn’t changed, but over the years the nature of search itself has. With the rise in popularity of mobile phones and the increasing sophistication of mobile technology, traditional search methods relying on text-based input have been giving way to voice and visual media as quicker and more intuitive ways for people to find the things they want.

The introduction of intelligent visual search technology into branded mobile apps, web sites, and platforms like Google and Pinterest has brought a new atmosphere of immediacy and convenience to the search marketing landscape. In the space of a few seconds, consumers can snap an image with their smartphone cameras and either buy the specific product they’ve captured, or search for similar items.

With visual search, the image becomes the query. And with increases in usage, search engines are gaining in sophistication when it comes to recognizing parts of images and returning more accurate and reliable results. The technology can now deliver results based on part of an existing image, photos and pans made with cameras, and searches conducted via augmented reality applications.

For retailers, this has expanded the reach of brands and introduced exciting opportunities. With the visual nature of their products, brands operating in the fashion and home decor sectors have much to gain from the visual search phenomenon. Some fashion brands have already begun incorporating proprietary search technology into their web properties and apps, allowing shoppers to photograph an item they like in a physical store and find similar items online.

Google’s response to the rise of visual search was to make image search simpler and more accessible through the launch of its camera-based search tool, Google Lens. As of May 2018, Google Lens became native to numerous Android smartphone cameras, eliminating the need for users to install a third-party app.

Google Lens was given a ‘Style Match’ feature, enabling potential buyers to locate products in the same vein as the one they initially searched for, and a feature that gives users a link to buy what they’ve snapped with their cameras or to browse related items.

To heighten the tool’s emphasis on shopping, Google also updated its app and mobile results to include badges for image search. So, for searches made within the Google app, consumers see a badge in the bottom left corner of an image denoting it as “product”, “recipe”, or whichever tag is appropriate.

The Emergence of Google Shopping

Google Shopping ads emerged as an opportunity for brands to display their products at the top of Google search results. The company explains shopping ads in this way: “Shopping ads are more than just a text ad — they show users a photo of your product, plus a title, price, store name, and more.”

For retailers, they offer a chance to grab the Google search engine user’s attention by displaying their products at the very top of the search results — above the normal text ads. Shopping ads also allow retailers to display products with an image and a price directly on the search results page. This gives retailers direct interaction with the customers who are specifically looking for what they have to offer.

In marketing terms, Google Shopping enables retailers to reach those bottom-of-the-funnel consumers who already know what they’re looking for. And the platform, in turn, gives those customers an easy way to find products right in their search results.

The model has already been yielding results. In 2018, Shopping ads made up 76.4% of all retail search ad spend in the United States. These same ads generated 65% of online retail clicks. Shopping ads generate on average an 18% higher revenue per click than text ads on desktop.

How It Works

A Google Shopping Ad consists of three parts: a product image, a product name or title, and a price. All these parts are extracted from a product feed — a datasheet you set up with information about your products.

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As a retailer, you’ll need to establish a Google Merchant Center account to be able to create and gain access to a product feed. This account acts as a central hub from which you can manage all the information about your store and your products. You’ll need to link your Merchant Center account with your Google Ads account once you’ve finished adding all the relevant information to your product feed.

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After that, Google Shopping automatically finds the most relevant search terms to display your ads alongside based on the information in your feed. This eliminates the hard work normally associated with finding and testing suitable keywords for your products in a traditional Google Search campaign.

If you wish to add more keywords manually, you’ll have to expand your product feed to include these terms. To improve the accuracy of search, you can also add negative keywords to your campaign — search terms that Google thinks are relevant to your product listing but aren’t that appropriate, or which may have negative connotations that hurt the chances of a sale or risk your brand image.

The main advantage of Google Shopping for retailers is being able to attract customers who’ve already expressed an intent to purchase. In terms of marketing channels, it’s a conversion driver — and one that usually gives marketers their greatest success where specific search terms are used.

Although the seller’s name usually appears somewhere within the ad, Google Shopping isn’t primarily a branding channel. For example, a customer search for “blue dress” might yield a result that looks like this:

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A customer who isn’t already familiar with the Saks Fifth Avenue brand (or isn’t actively looking for high-end fashion), probably wouldn’t click on an ad to buy a dress for $597 when there’s one right next to it selling for $66.

In this way, Google Shopping acts primarily as a product showcase rather than a specific branding opportunity. If you’re a retailer looking to build brand recognition, you’ll need to supplement your Google Shopping campaign with efforts to build awareness about your brand in the upper-funnel stages of the customer journey.

But as a conversion channel, Google Shopping is a winner, enabling retailers to reach consumers who are actively looking for what they have to offer and providing instant links that take them straight to the product page for an easy purchase. For this and other reasons, the platform has been gaining traction.

Trends in Social Commerce

More or less in parallel with Google Shopping has been the development of social commerce — selling products from directly within social media platforms. In this ecosystem, the store and the entire shopping experience happen without the customer ever leaving a social media site.

Social commerce offers a more streamlined process than traditional eCommerce, with features like chatbot checkouts, autofill payments, and delivery details available via fewer clicks or taps.

Besides convenience, there’s a conversational, interactive, and communal aspect to social commerce that makes its use particularly compelling. Consumers on a social media platform can easily share images of favorite products, make recommendations, and post criticism and commentary to their friends and peers. These opinions and content have the power of immediacy and the potential to influence a wide audience of people to buy or seek out products and brands.

Though the principal players in social commerce are Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook, more and more consumers are shifting to social and mobile as their primary means of content consumption and product discovery. In 2020, the time that people spend on mobile devices is predicted to surpass their time spent watching television.

Visual and interactive media are on the rise — and Google with its Shopping and visual search offerings is positioned to play a part in this ecosystem as the platform grows and matures.

The Rise of Google Shopping

In 2019, Google unveiled its new Google Shopping experience in the US, introducing a range of new features — some with a very Amazon-like flavor. The experience had made its first appearance in France, and while Google intends to expand it further, there’s no official word yet on when and where it will roll out next.

When it does, users will have a Google Shopping experience that’s been completely revamped, setting it up as a true eCommerce platform and a viable contender for the Amazon crown. Personalization is at the center of the new Google Shopping, with features designed to enhance the customer experience, both online and offline.

Customers browsing the new Google Shopping home page will receive personalized product recommendations based on their browser history and the products they’ve viewed or purchased in the past. Local product searches will enable buyers to search for specific retailers or products in their area. Customers are now able to buy products directly from Google Shopping without having to visit a retailer’s web site.

There’s automation in the mix as well, with a feature that allows users to enable price tracking on any product that catches their eye. Google will issue an automatic notification if the retailer drops its prices.

These features combine to make Google Shopping a viable alternative to the mighty Amazon. According to Inviqa research, “1 in 10 Millennials say the reason they would choose to not shop with Amazon in some instances is because they don’t always know what they’re looking for and it’s hard to find inspiration on Amazon”.

People traditionally turn to Google when they want inspiration — and inspiration is a way station on the customer journey that comes much earlier than searching for specific products. Google Shopping, therefore, has the potential to grab and hold the attention of would-be Amazon customers — and keep them on-site with its enhanced features long enough to complete the sale.

For retailers, having a product inspiration, browsing, and purchasing tool together in a single place makes Google Shopping a powerful selling platform. The greater personalization of the Google Shopping experience increases the chance of impulse buying on the part of the consumer. And the fact that customers have the option of clicking through to a seller’s web site or finding local stores makes the new Google Shopping a powerful complement to the retailer’s omnichannel marketing efforts.

Prospects for The Future

From its inception as an alternative to traditional search advertising to the new more personalized customer experience, Google Shopping offers advantages for buyers and sellers alike and provides retailers with opportunities that they can’t find on Amazon.

Though it’s unlikely to stop Amazon from eating into Google’s ad revenue, Google Shopping may restore some balance by taking a bite out of Amazon’s eCommerce earnings.

For more insights, join us at eTail Boston 2020, which takes place at The Sheraton, Boston.

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