A Sign of Things to Come

A Sign of Things to Come

12th June 2012

I think for many people that have been doing this business for a while, but last week marked a milestone we have expected Google to do at any minute – and to be honest I can truthfully say its come a lot later than I thought it would. In a symbolic move Google announced that Google Product Search (ex Froogle) is getting a brand new name – that of Google Shopping. However that is not the big news – Google Shopping comes with a twist – and a significant change in direction for Google – with Google Shopping now following the framework of other recent Google products such as Google Compare by moving to a paid model. Yes – moving forward Google Shopping is being moved towards a paid inclusion model – which for me suggests the writing is on the wall for a number of previously ‘safe haven’ search opportunities towards a model more in line with Google’s new ‘commercially focussed’ mindset – and even more away from the mantra and philosophy of the Google that burst onto the scene over a decade ago.

The move is interesting for a number of reasons, not just for the issues it could potentially have in terms of managing it commercially within teams. The product itself by all accounts will still work in a very similar fashion to the way it does now – however users will obviously have to pay for it to be included. As a result this could cause an issue around who is best to manage this as a channel. Is it a PPC team whose remit has traditionally been all things paid – or the organic search teams who are traditionally the guardians of all things organic which has until now included that of the shopping results. Google Compare recently gave us a similar issue – with many feeling ‘Exchange Trading’ teams may be best served to deal with such channels – rather than traditional PPC teams. With revenue of around $650 million (£421.8 million) in annual sales in the United States and about $1.3 billion globally Google Shopping is a fairly big revenue driver and as such the magnitude of this move should not be underestimated – however those commercials make it fairly obvious as to perhaps why Google have now chose this time to ‘monetise’ Shopping.

According to Google “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.”. I can’t help feeling that argument is suspect at best – particularly if one looks at the quality of many of the PPC results however I can only say the proof will be in the pudding somewhat. Merely assuming that commercialising the framework will attract better quality seems a bit naïve – however if Google are to perhaps focus on this as a product a bit more and improve both the infrastructure and policing/support thereof, then I personally would welcome this move.

Is this a good move?

I asked Dave Peiris aka SharkSEO what his thoughts were – “In a way, it was inevitable – the product listings in Google Shopping, when brought into search results, attract a lot of clicks for commercial phrases, so it was only a matter of time until Google tried to make money out of these longer tail keywords. They’ve been leaving a lot of money on the table for years, and I think they couldn’t resist it any longer. However, the argument they’re using is that paid for inclusion for product listings will be better for searchers and will provide better results – and I don’t believe that’s the case at all. I think it’s yet another ad format that pushes true organic listings further down the page (which is never a great user experience) and I think it’s unlikely that the best product listings will always be the ones that advertisers pay for. For example, for a search on “Burton Blunt snowboard 2012”, you’re likely to find a varying range of prices for the exact same product – is it likely that Google’s users want to see only the companies who have paid to be included, or would they prefer to see the store that was selling it for the lowest price? When they charge for placement in Google Shopping, the store selling it for the lowest price is less likely to be in those results.”.

Jon Quinton (from SEOGadget) had a similar sentiment – “To be perfectly honest, this really doesn’t surprise me at all. I know that many small ecommerce sites gain a good amount of traffic and business from this channel, so one hope is that it doesn’t create an even larger gap between small brands and the big guys. Competing online is certainly getting harder and harder for those at the lower end of the budget scale.”

I think this sentiment is similar to many others in the industry and to a certain extent has got many thinking as to where the next move may come.

Where next

With Google having now moved Shopping to a monetised framework, one has to ask where they might strike next. This appears to draw different responses. Dave suggested it was “very unlikely that we’ll see a similar paid inclusion model applied to news, or even local listings. It’s taken them 10 years to charge for results that are purely commercial, so I don’t think we’ll see it applied to other universal listings just yet.”.

Others weren’t quite so sure. Jon Quinton suggested that “ any of their products apart from the organic results themselves could be monetized at some stage in some shape or form. I think Google charging for shopping results and ‘heavy’ usage on the maps service is a pretty strong indication of this. After all, Google is a business who’s main concern is the bottom line. Providing users with ‘quality results’ helps them to put eyes in front of ads. Surely as a business you’d experiment with monetizing as much as possible.”.

Ryan Mckay (SEO Group Head from Mediacom) went on to say – “I hope it isn’t the trend for all google products and honestly can’t see it being applicable to all products such as google news were the focus of the product is providing lots of “unbiased” information. However given googles level of support for free products such as google places I’d welcome paid inclusion if it meant I could easily speak to a person and get issues resolved immediately. I think the big issue is that once the free products reach tipping point, businesses become reliant on them as a traffic source and revenue stream and at that stage can’t afford not to pay for what has always been unpaid.”

I can’t help feeling Jon and Ryan hits the nail quite nicely on the head here. Google is at the end of the day a listed company – whose primary motive is to make money (and appease those shareholders). Whilst I doubt they will ever move away completely from an ‘organic model’ – strategic monetisation such as Shopping or usage of API’s for example (which Terry van Horne from the SEODojo mentioned) would appear to be obvious candidates for further monetisation in the future.

Will this ever apply to Places?

Places has long been a channel I would have monetised, not just because it fits very nicely into a commercially orientated model but because the system itself is so incredibly bad that in my opinion starting again would not be a bad move. That said I think we are already seeing a chance in this framework with the move to Local+ however that doesn’t necessarily mean that we won’t see the Local framework monetised in some capacity.

Terry Van Horne suggested that Local may well potentially be an easy place to include – “Well there are lots of ways to monetize Places either directly or via free apps like the Zagat addition becoming paid – Keep in mind that Zagat was a paid resource before Google bought it!”. With that in mind keeping an eye on Local+ may well be a good place to start – as Jon Quinton suggested “What I’m more interested in is how this will change the way local results appear in the SERPS, and how the local ranking factors change. If they start to rely too heavily on Google+ to rank local businesses then that plan seems flawed to me. Until my friends (outside of SEO) start using Google+ then it really doesn’t seem like a ‘real life’ social media channel. Perhaps this move is before it’s time?” – which may then force their hand sooner rather than later

So will it ever happen to the organic results?

Organic search has always been the holy grail here. Whilst many people have suggested Google are on a mission to rid the results of SEO – many others have taken a more rationale approach to things. Whilst the shopping move was certainly a significant one, one would have to be foolhardy to suggest that this will ever go as far as to monetise the organic results. That said stranger things have happened however those I spoke to seemed to echo that sentiment however did have a couple of interesting suggestions which I know others such as fellow State of Search blogger Sam Crocker have already taken up.

Dave Perris: “No, I don’t think we ever will. The organic results are Google’s bread and butter – it’s what keeps users returning and searching, and paid inclusion would ruin the integrity of those results. Google are smart enough to realise that it didn’t work for Yahoo, and I think they probably have too much pride (and too much invested) in their organic results to harm the quality of them. Switching to a paid inclusion model for organic results would be a sign of desperation, and I can’t see that ever being the case for Google.”

Jon Quinton: “I think that would be a good time to start using Bing. In all seriousness; wouldn’t we end up in exactly the same place if they introduced paid inclusion in the organic results? I mean, we’d all pay to get in but then we’d still have to compete to be seen. I’m sure we’ve all seen examples of SERP’s that are almost entirely taken over with PPC, Local and Shopping results. I think it’s pretty clear that Google will continue to test layouts to see where people’s tolerances lie and there will always be rumours of paid inclusion with the organic results. I guess time will tell – shall we put a pint of Guinness on it?!”

Terry Van Horne: “Nope, quite simply that is against the law Inclusion is supposed to not guarantee any kind of ranking anywhere! It means exactly as the word suggest Inclusion.If it comes up in results it’s supposed to be the result of natural relevance not Google placing it for instance above the fold. That’s why I’m thinking we’ll see Google get it’s wrists slapped IMO, this has taken Inclusion beyond what Inclusion has meant in the past. When Yahoo and I believe Inktomi used it as means for inclusion of listings that were not indexable at that time. That’s why I think Some are marked “Sponsored”. Paid to rank and nothing on those that got there on their own merit. Remember this was before the Days of Sitemaps which IMO, made Inclusion a non issue because it really isn’t needed to get indexed sitemaps now fulfill that need. Also understand this was somewhat the same scheme that was rumored for Places and Local Search with Bruce Clay and another providing the inclusion service. It was denied because quite frankly what they were describing also was not real Inclusion but a form of Paid placement.”

Ryan Mckay: “In short no, given the large number of non-commercial query spaces where paid inclusion isn’t relevant google can’t have paid inclusion. Aside from this giving searchers what they want is what has made Google grow to what it is today and changing the organic results to a paid inclusion model simply wouldn’t provide users with the data they want. That said we definitely will see googles own web properties and paid advertising taking up more space in the organic results in the future.”

According to Sameer Samat, vice president of product management for Google Shopping – “This is about delivering the best answers for people searching for products and helping connect merchants with the right customers,”. Google believes it will have better and more trustworthy data that will improve the shopping search experience for its users.

One things for sure – and I am sure I have seen Rishi say this on a number of occasions. Google have started monetising a number of channels from Finance to Shopping. There will be more on their way as our ever evolving landscape evolves yet further – however its how we take those changes and evolve our strategies to suit. Whether or not this is a good move remains to be seen – I certainly have some doubts as to whether the adoption rate will be as high – however if it results in that better quality result and experience for both advertisers and users that can only be a good thing – right?


Written By
Peter has been around the industry for a while now, having previously headed up both search and SEO operations at Connectpoint (now Amaze), Mediavest, Brilliant Media and now Search & Social Director for Mediacom.
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