Google Product Search Changing Into Google Shopping

Late last week, Google caused a big stir among marketers with major changes to one of its services. Google Product Search, which lets consumers find and compare products from online stores, will become Google Shopping. It’s changing not only its name, but its business model: instead of receiving free listings, business owners must now pay to be included.

Danny Sullivan broke the news over at Search Engine Land, and readers have been buzzing about it ever since; the article boasts more than 100 comments, and it’s been live less than a week. Reactions range from “This is yet another sign that Google is really evil” to “This will be better for consumers, and Google’s only doing what Amazon has been doing since the beginning.”

In fact, in Google’s blog post announcing the change, the search giant says that the point of the change is to improve the consumer experience. “We believe that 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,” Google explained.

Google plans to complete the transition in the fall in the U.S., and sometime next year for the rest of the world. It is offering incentives for merchants to switch over quickly. If you create Product Listing Ads by by mid-August, you’ll get a monthly credit for 10 percent of your total Product Listing Ad spend through the end of this year. If you’re already a Google Product Search merchant, you can receive an AdWords credit of $100 toward Product Listing Ads if you fill out a form by mid-August.

During the transition period, you can expect to see Google run a variety of experiments on Google.com that will show listings from both Google Product Search and Product Listing Ads. The latter were originally launched in 2010; buyers of these ads can display a small image next to them, and purchase them on a cost-per-action rather than a cost-per-click basis. Currently, Product Listing Ads and Google Product Search results get displayed separately. Google’s experiments will combine them into one Google Shopping box. On the whole, the change delivers a cleaner, more organized result; collecting all of the thumbnail images into one box makes it more visually appealing to searchers.

Let’s be clear on one point: if you’re already listed in Google’s free web search results, you’ll continue to appear there. But after the fall, if you want to show up in those Google Shopping results, which will appear as part of Google’s regular results, you’ll need to pay. In fact, if you want to get into Google’s dedicated shopping search engine at all, you’ll need to pay. This is a big change; it’s the first time that Google has ever taken a free product or service and made it pay-to-play.

There’s a bit of a catch though, and it’s something search marketers have encountered before. Google Shopping will function on a “paid inclusion” model. This means you’ll need to pay to be listed at all, but just because you’ve paid doesn’t mean you’ll rank well for any particular terms. Sullivan explained that “Merchants won’t bid on particular keywords but rather bid how much they’re willing to pay, if their listings appear and get clicks or produce sales. Getting a top ranking will depend on a combination of perceived relevance and bid price.”

But didn’t Google once consider paid inclusion “evil”? Well, yes. But that seems to have changed last year. When Google Hotel Finder and Google Flight Search launched, they both seemed to involve a certain paid component. Google Advisor, a financial products vertical search engine, also seems to require merchants to pay to be included.

This would make Google Shopping the search giant’s fourth paid inclusion product…except that Google is trying to claim that what it’s doing now isn’t REALLY paid inclusion. “Paid inclusion has historically been used to describe results that the website owner paid to place, but which were not labelled [sic] differently from organic search results,” Sullivan quoted Google as telling him in a statement. Google seems to believe that, by clearly separating the paid results from the free ones, and labeling them as such, it’s avoiding the evil “paid inclusion” practice.

In fact, it’s not – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If merchants are putting up money to be included, there’s less incentive to abuse the system. With a greater barrier to entry, there’s more to lose if a merchant flouts Google’s rules and gets kicked out. So if Google says that they want merchants on Google Shopping to include tax and shipping costs in their feeds, as they have for Google Product Search, there’s more of a reason to comply; getting kicked out will actually hurt. This should improve the shopping experience for searchers.

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