Google Shopping has been known by a number of names since its introduction in 2002. It was launched as Froogle, a service which used Google’s web crawler to index products from retailers and present them separately from its normal web results.
It then became Google Product Search until 2012. Until this point the retail listings were organic results, augmented with paid ad placements.
However, this model changed with the introduction of Google Shopping in 2012, and now the listings are made up of paid results, with placement of listings determined by a mixture of relevance to the search term and bid amounts.
In this article, I’ll look at the importance of Google Shopping, how to list your products and make listings competitive, and whether it’s worth the effort for smaller retailers to pay to play here.
A bit of background…
Google Shopping has been controversial at times, being the subject of an EU antitrust fine for prioritising its own results in searches, while the introduction of the paid model has been criticised for the advantages it may afford to larger retailers.
For product search, Google has been squeezed by Amazon over the past few years. Indeed, a survey from 2019 found that 49% of all product searches began on Amazon, compared to 22% on Google. Product searches have declined on Google slightly over the past few years, which is one of the reasons for its promotion of Google Shopping.
For retailers though, Google still has plenty of reach. A Kenshoo study found that 85% of respondents use Google for product ideas and information before buying.
It’s likely that Google and Amazon both figure heavily in product search, so retailers are wise to have a presence on both sites where possible.
This is where Google Shopping has a part to play. Shopping ads have recently become the most popular search ad format for retailers.
Shopping ads now drive 76.4% of retail search ad spend and generate 85.3% of all clicks on either Google Ads or Google Shopping ads. That’s a great spend to click ratio for retailers.
Looking at Google Shopping Ads in action, it’s easy to see the appeal of the format. They occupy a prominent slot in search results, sometimes at the top, sometimes on the right-hand side. Product images also allow searchers to see the products there and then, which can be much more persuasive than standard PPC ads.
Pros and cons of Google Shopping for smaller businesses
Google’s size and reach
Amazon may be encroaching in terms of product search, but Google remains the most popular search engine in the world, used by 70% of web users worldwide.
The chance to get your products in front of this audience in a prominent position is very attractive to retailers.
The look and positioning of ads
Google Shopping ads take up prominent positions in the search results, with preview images to catch the eye of searchers. On mobile, they’re often the most visible search results.
Organic results are becoming less and less visible
One continuing trend from Google over the last few years has been to push standard organic results further and further down the page. For a search like the one above for men’s suits, the user has to scroll more than halfway down the page for organic results. Shopping ads offer a way to achieve greater visibility.
Shopping ads are more effective than text ads
The ad spend to click ratio makes Google Shopping ads more attractive than text ads. If retailers are spending on paid search, this budget may be better spent on Shopping ads.
For some product categories, it’s possible that Google Shopping will not reward the effort spent on it. Some products are so dominated by big name retailers that it’s hard for small businesses to achieve visibility.
Effort and resources required
Google Shopping isn’t as simple as PPC, and to achieve the best results and performance, a certain amount of time and expertise is required. For smaller retailers, the time required (or the budget to use agencies or consultants) may make this less efficient.
Costs of competing
Achieving higher positions, and therefore better click-through rates against opponents with bigger ad budgets can be a challenge.
How to get your products listed on Google Shopping
1. Set up Merchant Center and Google Ads accounts
To get started on Google Shopping, you’ll need to set up accounts with two Google services: Merchant Center and Google Ads. It’s also important to have Google Analytics to manage and track performance if you haven’t linked it to your site already.
Merchant Center is where your product feed sits, a place where you can upload your product range and key data such as images and prices. Google Ads is the place to manage Shopping campaigns.
Merchant Center feeds can be set up manually, or there are various apps and extensions which do some of the work for you.
Then it’s a case of verifying your site and confirming it for use with Merchant Center (you’ll need access to your domain registrar for this).
Then you need to set up tax and delivery settings, before linking your Merchant Center account to Google Ads.
Google has a useful guide to setting up an Ads account if you don’t already have one. Once you have, and it’s linked to Merchant Center, then campaigns can be created and managed through the Campaigns tab, under which you’ll see the Shopping option.
2. Add product images
One of the benefits of Google Shopping ads over PPC is the use of images. As the example below demonstrates, the use of product images helps them to stand out over text ads and even organic results.
The images used for Shopping ads are pulled from the retailer’s product pages, so they need to show the product in the best possible light. Indeed, poor quality images can result in ads not being displayed.
Google has a series of recommendations for images. For example, the product should be shown against a clear background and take up between 75% and 90% of the image.
It’s important to pay attention to image quality to maximise the chances of success for your ads. Optimised product images can also help to improve conversions on your own website.
3. Create a product feed
The product feed is the pool of products that you want to target Google searchers with in your ads.
This feed contains key information such as product title, description, target country and language, price and more.
As mentioned before, Merchant Center feeds can be set up manually, using Google Sheets for example, or there are various apps and extensions which can help with some of the work.
4. Build your Shopping campaign
Campaigns can be launched through Google Ads or through Merchant Center, Google has a detailed walkthrough, but basically, you’ll be adding details like campaign name, daily ad budget and target countries.
5. Place bids for your campaign
Google has a choice of bid strategies for different types of campaigns. This may depend on the networks you’re targeting, or your goals, which may be traffic, lead generation, or sales.
For example, if conversions are your campaign goal, then Smart Bidding is the best fit. As Google describes it, Smart Bidding is “a set of automated bid strategies that uses machine learning to optimize for conversions or conversion value in each and every auction”.
After bid strategy, you’ll need to choose your campaign budget, which is the amount you want to spend daily, on average. Google manages this budget monthly, so if you set your spend at £50 per day in a 30 day month, Google will not spend more than £1,500 in that month.
6. Targeting and scheduling
This is important as it allows you to set who sees your ads and when. So, retailers in this country can target only UK Google Shopping users, and so on.
Targeting the correct locations can save budget by only targeting customers in the areas you can deliver to. This is a sensible first step to make the most of your campaign budget.
It can also be used to target the areas where more people are likely to buy your products. This could be to do with factors like climate. Luxury retailers, for example, could target higher-income areas where ads are more likely to be successful.
7. Use Shopping campaign ad groups
Ad groups help you to organise bidding and access specific features for each of your campaigns.
For example, you might want to set things like bids and positive and negative keywords in different ways for each of your product groups or brands.
Essentially, this allows you to be more specific with ad targeting and spend according to different product types.
How small retailers can get the best results from Google Shopping
While there may be challenges, using Google Shopping as a smaller retailer can be worth it. It can be cost-effective and, since you’re only paying when someone clicks through to your site, it can be worth investing some budget here.
Beyond merely setting up Merchant Center accounts and creating campaigns, the key to performance lies in the details. Here are some strategies for retailers to try on a smaller budget.
1. Smart segmentation of Shopping campaigns
Segmentation can enable you to create more cost-effective terms by avoiding spending too much on generic product searches and concentrating on more specific product terms. Think ‘Adidas Marathon Running Shoes’ rather than ‘Running Shoes’.
These specific terms indicate a stronger intent to purchase, so it can pay as a smaller retailer to focus your budget here where it can have the most effect.
2. Find unique keywords and language in your product titles
The key to success on a budget is to find niches where you can attract searches for your products without paying over the top for traffic. Study your competition to see what they’re doing.
Using unique and natural language titles is one way to do this. They can reflect the way people search more accurately, and avoid you getting into a bidding war with bigger retailers using generic product descriptions.
Even appending key details to product titles, such as size and gender can make a difference, as this study shows.
3. Keep a tight control of bids
Working on a budget, it’s important to have a tight control over bids, so you’re not spending too much. To a certain extent, bid increases can lead to higher conversions, but they can mean that Google is showing your ads for more generic searches which are less likely to covert.
The best approach is to increase bids carefully and test the impact on conversions.
4. Consider tweaking prices rather than bids
Instead of increasing bids to drive more sales, the same effect can be gained by lowering prices. Some studies suggest that Google Shopping algorithms favour lower prices, so this can increase your visibility.
5. Find your niche
Unique products which aren’t sold on Amazon and by hundreds of other online retailers have a better chance of achieving high visibility on Google Shopping.
6. Encourage and upload product reviews
Product reviews in Google Shopping results can help your products to stand out on results pages and can help to convert shoppers.
Reviews are aggregated using data from the merchant’s own sites and third-party review sites. As Google explains here, retailers need a minimum of 50 reviews across all products to upload their own review feeds, but third party aggregators and Google Customer Reviews are other options.
Recent changes to Google Shopping
The COVID-19 pandemic and the threats it represents to the retail sector has led Google to bring forward plans to make Google Shopping listings free. According to Google, this is aimed to bring more products in front of shoppers and to help retailers build an online presence.
Google says that now, “search results on the Google Shopping tab will consist primarily of free listings”. This represents a great opportunity for small businesses to gain a greater presence in Google Shopping results without it making a massive dent in their marketing budgets.
This change is now active in the US, but is expected to be introduced for Google Shopping in the UK and globally by the end of the year. However, it is possible to create free campaigns which target shoppers in the US with Google suggesting augmenting paid campaigns with free listings for advertisers already using the platform.
Even if Google later reverses this decision, or reduces visibility for free Google Shopping UK listings, it still represents a chance for SMEs who may not currently use this channel to gain valuable experience with a reduced budget. They can optimise campaigns using the tips in this article, and work on ways to optimise performance in a cost-effective way.
Another new change is the integration of PayPal. This means that retailers who currently offer PayPal as a payment option can choose to link their PayPal accounts in Google’s Merchant Center.
The potential benefits include easier integration of products with Google Shopping accounts and a faster merchant verification process for new Merchant Center accounts.
There’s lots to think about when considering Google Shopping ads. It’s true that it can be hard for smaller retailers, and it does require an investment in time and effort to set up and optimise Google Shopping campaigns.
It may also be the case that, for some product areas, the amount of competition may make it very difficult for smaller retailers to achieve results.
However, there are ways for smaller retailers to prosper using Google Shopping, and it has the potential to get your products and services in front of the millions using Google every day for product searches.
It doesn’t have to mean a massive investment upfront. Retailers can start small and refine and grow their presence over time. The key is to find areas where you can offer something different and make your ads stand out from the rest.