Google Plays Catch-up to Amazon in Product Search

Google is the underdog in product search. The company is aggressively trying to close the gap.

Google Plays Catch-up to Amazon in Product Search

Amazon’s rise as the top destination for product search is one of the more compelling developments in the industry.

Seven years ago, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt declared Amazon was its biggest search rival. It seemed a strange comment at the time (why not Bing?) but it turned out to be true. According to a new survey conducted by ChannelAdvisor, more consumers do product research on Amazon than Google. These findings underscore similar research elsewhere. And Amazon has proven to be even more of a juggernaut during the holiday shopping season.

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Google has been battling back, with multiple initiatives. For example, in April of last year it made product listings free to attract more merchant inventory. It has also been emphasizing local, real-time inventory as another way to compete with Amazon.  

From Search to Product Purchase

Branded and non-branded product searches on Google equally return results that encourage you to shop – on Google. For example, if you do a branded search for a Nintendo Switch, you’ll see that Google emphasizes results that either take you to:

  • An ad for the product from a Google Ads customer.
  • A location on Google Maps to purchase the product.
  • Destinations to buy the product online.
  • Product reviews.
  • Related products to buy.

In the following image everything outlined in red is either a link that Google makes money on when clicked or a link that takes you to results that also exist on a Google-owned property.

This content appears alongside or is more prominent than news about the product or answers to commonly asked questions. Also, the Google Maps and Knowledge Panel results reveal crucial details to help searchers make purchase decisions:

  • Product availability at each location.
  • Price.
  • Fulfillment options such as free shipping.

If you search for a service instead of a product, such as "oil change near me," you receive similar (though slightly less aggressive) results.

Increasingly, Google is connecting the dots between search and purchase. By doing so, Google benefits from:

  • Revenue from conversions on Google Ads. Advertising is Google’s core business and accounts for ~80% of its revenue. As Amazon and Facebook encroach on Google’s share of the online advertising, Google is seeking to protect its ad business.
  • Search volume. According to SparkToro, 65 percent of Google searches don’t result in a click-through to a website (zero-click search). People are finding answers to their queries on Google’s SERP without needing to click anywhere else. While this is bad for publishers, it reinforces Google usage. More traffic means more ad revenue. But, as noted, Google has reason to worry about the type of traffic Amazon is currently capturing: high-intent product search queries likely to result in a purchase.

Fighting Fire with Fire

In addition to the above, Google and its President of Commerce Bill Ready have made a number of recent moves designed to support and strengthen e-commerce:  

Emulating Amazon
Google is making product search results look a lot like Amazon’s product display layout. As Google recently explained in a blog post, "[W]hen you search for 'cropped jackets,' we’ll show you a visual feed of jackets in various colors and styles, alongside other helpful information like local shops, style guides and videos. From there, you can easily filter your search by style, department, brand and more – and when you find something you like, you can check out ratings, reviews and even compare prices to get the best deal."

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Making product search more useful
Google is making it possible for searchers to get more in-depth information about products with Google Lens and visual search. As Google noted, "With this new capability, you can tap on the Lens icon when you’re looking at a picture of a shirt, and ask Google to find you the same pattern — but on another article of clothing, like socks. This helps when you’re looking for something that might be difficult to describe accurately with words alone. You could type ‘white floral Victorian socks,’ but you might not find the exact pattern you’re looking for. By combining images and text into a single query, we’re making it easier to search visually and express your questions in more natural ways."

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Google also recently introduced a new feature, Things to know, using its AI-supported Multitask Unified Model. This will make it easier to learn about new topics – including products – by suggesting related content for further exploration. If someone searches for "acrylic painting," for example, Google will suggest related topics people are searching for via "Things to know."

Google says "Things to know" will suggest ideas that someone "might not have known to search for — like 'how to make acrylic paintings with household items' — and connect you with content on the web that you wouldn’t have otherwise found." This is not unlike the Spotify playlist algorithm, which suggests ideas for exploring music – but in this case, potential products to buy in the Google universe.

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What Brands Should Do Now

Here are some actionable steps that marketers and brands can take in response to Google's product-search initiatives:

  • Incorporate Google ad units that appeal to visual search. For example, Discovery Campaigns are visually rich ads rendered natively across Google properties.
  • In Google listings, capitalize on tools that encourage people to shop at your brick-and-mortar location or website once people find your listing on that critical SERP. For instance, free and fast shipping annotations allows you to showcase your products that you can ship quickly. Retailers can use local inventory ads to promote items available for purchase in store. The local product inventory feed is used for local inventory ads and free local product listings.
  • Optimize your content for featured snippets, which are crucial to being visible in zero-click searches. "Google’s search results sometimes show listings where the snippet describing a page comes before a link to a page, not after as with our standard format," explains Google. "Results displayed this way are called ‘featured snippets.’ We display featured snippets when our systems determine this format will help people more easily discover what they’re seeking, both from the description about the page and when they click on the link to read the page itself. They’re especially helpful for those on mobile or searching by voice."
  • Re-evaluate your organic content everywhere people find your business, including Google Business Profiles. For instance, how will "Things to know" influence how much content you create (you’ll probably need to create more) in order to make your site more findable when Google recommends content for further exploration? How well is your content aligned with visual search?
  • Finally, take ownership of customer reviews. Encourage customers to review you. Respond to reviews. Accumulate positive reviews. As Google makes itself a stronger destination for product searches, reviews are even more influential and visible. Reviews also make your listings more visible in Google Search.

Always mind the big picture: product-related searches are becoming even more visual on Google in the age of Instagram. How well is your content aligned?

Adam Dorfman is the Director of Product Growth at Reputation. Follow him on Twitter at @phixed