With Google being nearly synonymous with the internet, it’s only natural to assume that Google may someday become an ecommerce powerhouse.
But Google has yet to see its glory days. In fact, 54% of all product searches now start on Amazon, which continues to make big strides in both the online and offline worlds. Meanwhile, Google appears confounded by the issue of finding its place in either world, struggling to plant roots in any major area of ecommerce.
So, where does Google stand today? Will it ever truly rise to the occasion? What do you as a seller need to know about Google Shopping, especially if you’re thinking about adding it as a potential sales channel? Here’s what we’ve seen so far and how we recommend viewing Google Shopping.
A Recap of Google’s Ecommerce Journey
Let’s begin by rewinding to when Google made its first big splash in ecommerce, then tracing it back to where the company stands today.
Rocky Beginnings: Google Express
Google Express was the company’s first high-profile attempt at competing against Amazon. Express was launched in 2013, following Google's investments in Froogle (a price comparison service) and other smaller experiments. It existed as a virtual shopping mall and offered an Instacart-like service for groceries, clothing and other items.
Express customers could essentially shop items from thousands of local retailers (think: Walgreens, Walmart and Best Buy) from the Google Express app. Their purchases would then arrive at their doorsteps one to three days later, thanks to dedicated drivers that Google would hire in cities nearby the consumers.
“The Express project positioned Google as a technologically advanced ally to retailers in their uphill fight against Amazon.” - Vox
The program was met with lots of fanfare when it was first launched on a free trial basis in San Francisco. When coupled with Shopping Ads, it seemed like the dawning of a new era for Google. However, just one year later, the cracks in the foundation started to show.
Tom Fallows, the chief architect of the Express project, shocked employees by leaving for a position at Uber. Fallows’ boss, Sam Sameer, exited shortly after. The following years were riddled with failed experiments, including a failed subscription model, the closure of the San Francisco delivery hub in 2015 and a weak attempt at building a physical footprint while retailers like Target, Walmart and Amazon all invested in their own fulfillment arms.
What started as a grand entrance into the commerce world unraveled into a hodgepodge of unrealized potential.
2019: Google Express Is Nixed—But Masked as a Revamp
Google Express officially met its demise in 2019. By then, the platform had struggled to gain traction with shoppers, who barely knew what Express was or where to find it.
However, this was downplayed as part of a larger effort to revamp Google Shopping. Google Shopping, by contrast, promised a more cohesive ecosystem, built from the company’s most popular ecommerce features. Those included a personalized shopping homepage, a universal shopping cart, Buy on Google and new advertising options.
“With Google Shopping, Google goes back to its search engine roots.” - TechCrunch
In a sense, Google seemed to take a step back and revert to what it did best: organize information, capture clicks and deliver relevant ads. Today, Google Shopping still exists as a platform for buyers to explore their options and hunt for the best deals.
You can access it through shopping.google.com. Alternatively, you may see Google Shopping ads running across multiple surfaces, including Google Assistant, Google Images and YouTube.
Read Also: Google Ecommerce Terms: Defined
2020: Google Announces Free Shopping Listings
In its most recent attempt to boost seller adoption, the company announced free product listings to the Google Shopping Tab. This space was previously reserved for advertisers who were willing to dish out money for exposure to (reportedly) millions of daily users.
The company succeeded at attracting 8,000 new sellers by the end of 2020. However, few sellers saw returns unless they were willing to promote their listings through paid means, according to Marketplace Pulse. Google Shopping had virtually zero organic discovery, prompting the team to temporarily reduce commission fees to 0% for Buy on Google.
Google simultaneously announced that it would support product feeds to make it easier for Amazon sellers to upload their catalogs and take advantage of Buy on Google.
Despite these efforts, seller adoption failed to pick back up. Google still remains a quiet channel for today’s sellers and bears little-to-no weight on their consciences.
“...Few customers are aware of Google Shopping, let alone of Buy on Google, and thus liquidity on the marketplace is minimal. Few sellers have used it themselves as customers too. Therefore, zero percent fees instead of fifteen percent on tiny sales is an insignificant change.” - Marketplace Pulse
Where Google Stands Today
We dare to say that little has changed in terms of the general outlook for Google’s ecommerce ambitions. In early 2021, the mobile Shopping app was discontinued.
Perhaps the loudest, most optimistic voice comes from within the organization.
“When it comes to shopping, what we’re really trying to build out and support is a free and open commerce ecosystem,” says Bill Ready, Google’s president of commerce and payments. Ready says that users engage with Google’s Shopping features more than a billion times per day.
He and his team remain allergic to the words “marketplace” and “retailer” when it comes to describing the future that Google is trying to build—that is, a future where online shopping is democratized.
Part of his plan involves reintroducing free listings and joining hands with Shopify, which offers a bridge to 1.7 million retailers around the world. It appears that first, his team will tackle the issues of low seller adoption. Then, it’ll tackle the issue of customer acquisition.
Ultimately, his team is likely aiming to convince buyers to, once again, start their product searches on Google as opposed to the current champion, Amazon.
How Should You Regard Google?
Let us begin by saying that we’ll never deny Google’s potential to defy the odds. However, Google should not be regarded in the same light as other marketplaces. Aside from the fact that the giant itself does not define its platform as a marketplace, Google Shopping isn’t established in the same way that Amazon and Walmart Marketplace are.
There’s no fulfillment business to support your end-to-end operations. There’s no well-adopted checkout experience (despite Google's efforts to get Buy on Google to stick). There’s not even one central catalog that (enough) people flock to.
There’s only the basics: ads and SEO.
At the end of the day, you’d benefit most from leveraging Google ads (search and/or shopping) or optimizing your branded webpages for organic ranking on Google’s SERPs. It doesn’t hurt to take advantage of Google’s free product listings.
However, Google is a better advertising platform than it is a shopping mall. With the ability to expand your reach across voice search, video, image search and more—Google’s ad network is the ray of sunshine on the company’s rainiest days.
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