Google has dominated consumer search for nearly 20 years. While this dominance continues today, there is one area of search where it is losing share rapidly: retail product search. Historically, it’s been one of Google’s biggest moneymakers, with retail search accounting for at least 25 percent of total search revenues.
A recent study by BloomReach indicates that 55 percent of consumers make their first product search on Amazon, more than double the rate for search engines. This is a staggering statistic and means that Amazon is more often than not the first place where shoppers go when they have a product in mind. Amazon has the opportunity to influence shopper behavior more than any other company, a position once held firmly by Google. Billions of dollars are at stake here.
While Google does not benefit from actually selling and fulfilling products, it has some significant assets and advantages that would allow it to compete better in retail search. All of these start with Google’s Shopping property, which has been a huge financial success over the past few years. Here are some thoughts on how it might better leverage its strengths and real estate to fight back against Amazon in product search.
Exploiting its massive inventory selection
Google receives feeds from hundreds of thousands of advertisers every day with unique SKUs counting into the billions. That is significantly more SKUs than Amazon hosts on its site; Google, in aggregate, has a better selection of inventory than Amazon. However, Google is currently less explicit on results pages about which items are currently in stock. This could be due to lack of accurate data from retail partners or a design challenge with the site overall. Either way, people often cite “Amazon has everything” as a reason for shopping there. This is not necessarily true, and Google needs to exploit this inventory advantage.
Due to its inventory advantages and now standardized feed format across retailers and manufacturers, Google knows more about pricing across the internet than Amazon does. Google must do more with this information than it does currently. It must help consumers navigate to the most attractive offer for a given product, weighing product price, shipping fees and shipping date. By clearly highlighting the best offer (as opposed to relying solely on AdRank to drive ranking of products), Google will become more to consumers than just a start point for product search. It will become a trusted source for where to get the best deals online. And that kind of relationship with consumers can definitely help turn the tide against Amazon.
Marc Lore, who now leads Walmart’s e-commerce business, recently said that two-day free shipping is now “table stakes” in the space. Amazon has put significant pressure on retailers like Walmart to adopt equivalent shipping policies to that of its Prime membership. While that puts cost and operational pressure on retailers, it gives Google the opportunity to place more significant weight on its retailers’ shipping policies in its Shopping algorithm. If two-day free shipping (or better) starts to become the industry standard, there is no company better than Google to highlight those retailers that are going above and beyond in terms of meeting this emerging customer need.
It has become increasingly clear that Google is the dominant player globally in machine learning technology. The release of TensorFlow, the acquisition of DeepMind and the success of AlphaGo in the past year or two only further reinforces this notion. It would only makes sense for Google to begin helping shoppers select and purchase merchandise very efficiently. We have some early signals that Google is going this direction with 1) the introduction of “vsually similar products” that help shoppers easily navigate like products available across e-commerce sites, and 2) Showcase Ads that allow certain shoppers to view and navigate a selection of a brand’s products instead of just one based on the query they execute. While these are only small steps towards a fully machine-facilitated shopping experience on Google, machine learning is an area where Google has the resources and know-how to leapfrog the competition and do something very compelling.
Google has made a huge push over the last couple of years to acquire and integrate retailers’ local inventory into its index, enabling it to offer consumers a glimpse of which products are available nearest to their physical location. This is important information, especially on mobile, and it is a capability that Amazon cannot hope to match until it builds out either its own retail network of stores or can offer shipping in under a day on most of its products. The key for Google is to figure out where and when to display local results to a searcher. This is a difficult task and will likely involve quite a bit of machine learning to get right.
Amazon still needs to play
Even though 55 percent of product searches may start on Amazon, there is still a huge number of product searches taking place on other online properties, the lion’s share on Google itself. As the dominant global e-commerce player, Amazon has recently decided that it could not continue to expand market share without having its products on the world’s largest search engine. While this is not welcome news for retailers who compete against Amazon, it is excellent news for Google. First, from a monetization perspective, Amazon’s participation in Google Shopping increases the RPM for every product search it competes on. Second, this gives Google a lot of data that it didn’t have previously on Amazon’s strategy in each of the markets it plays in.
Amazon has become a growing existential threat in the retail space. This doesn’t just apply to retailers but to media and technology players that facilitate transactions in the space — even Google. However, there are many assets in the retail value chain that Amazon has not perfected (or even addressed) at this point. Google has the financial incentive and the core assets to fight back against Amazon in retail. We expect that shoppers worldwide will begin to see many of these recent investments become real as they shop for products online using Google.