What Google Shopping's free listings update means for retail

With the ongoing health crisis leading to a major shift to eCommerce, retailers of all shapes and sizes are in desperate need for new ways to connect with consumers and keep their business moving. Enter Google.

In April, Bill Ready, president of commerce at Google, announced that ‘It’s now free to sell on Google’. Retailers rejoiced, for they were able to access hundreds of millions of potential customers at absolutely no cost, and they all lived happily ever after.

Perhaps not. Unfortunately, things are never so simple. But it is critical for retail marketers adjusting to the growing online world to understand what these changes mean, and how they can get the most out of Google Shopping.

For those unfamiliar with Google Shopping - it’s quite simple. In Google’s own terms, it “enables users to view product information from merchants that is updated on a regular basis by the merchants. Online retailers, part of the Google Merchant network, submit feeds containing product information to Google Shopping and pay each time someone clicks to their website or makes a purchase directly from their site.”

Since its launch in 2002, Google Shopping has made great strides in trying to compete with the likes of Amazon, which is currently dominating in product search and advertising for eCommerce sales. Last year Google finalised rolling out a new type of campaign called ‘Smart Shopping’ that uses machine learning to automate bidding and ad placements, essentially freeing up a lot of man hours for advertisers. For vendors with smaller budgets and less time and knowledge to strategically manoeuvre campaigns, it was a welcome update.

But most recently, against the backdrop of the global pandemic forcing a great number of physical retail stores to close and move online, Google has said it will bring free listings into its shopping results, something previously only available to paid listings. Starting with the US, the hope is to roll this out to all countries where Merchant Centre is available by the end of 2020. It’s easy enough for merchants to opt-in to; they just have to agree to have their listings visible across all of Google’s ‘surfaces’, such as the Google Shopping tab, Google Search, Google Images, Google Maps and Google Lens.

The idea of this launch is both to give the end-user a better experience when looking for products with Google, and also for merchants to utilise Google as another route to market, without having to pay to be present. So, for most merchants, we can only see that opting in will be of overall benefit.

Where will I see these unpaid shopping listings?

The main search engine results page, where a Google Search automatically takes you, will remain unchanged. The Shopping results listed above all other search results will remain as paid Shopping ads, denoted by the ‘Sponsored’ label in the top right-hand corner:

In the US, and for other countries after the rollout of unpaid shopping listings, if advertisers have opted into surfaces across Google, it will also start showing unpaid shopping ads underneath the paid ones – on the Google Shopping tab:

Do people click on the Shopping tab?

Google does not share information on the share of traffic between their ‘surfaces’, so it’s near-impossible to quantify how many users click on the tab directly. This means it’s difficult to attribute a figure to the increase in visibility your products will get from this change.

However, we are already seeing the impact this change is having. Some of our clients in the US have seen a dramatic increase in organic traffic, of around 20%. This suggests that the changes to Shopping could bring about a fairly significant rise for SEO, if optimised correctly.

Do I need to optimise my current feed?

As with all elements of search marketing, there are ways of optimising your activity to make the most of the feed you submit. It’s all about relevancy.

From a paid perspective, a retailer should be utilising every available attribute within its feed to ensure Google has as much information as possible on its products. Unpaid Shopping listings are no exception to this, but benefit particularly from having full information on availability, delivery policy and using a canonical link.

How do I track results?

Officially, there’s currently no way to be able to track the performance of unpaid Shopping listings outside of their wider ‘organic’ grouping.

Without testing on a case-by-case basis it’s difficult to know things like conversion rate on unpaid ads versus paid, the mix of audiences who go onto the Shopping tab, and many other variables. But until we do know that, it’s good to view the announcement as a way to further reach customers with your products, without having to invest more budget into paid ads.

Photo credit (iStock): gradyreese