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Google has announced that it is launching a price comparison service offering information on credit cards and bank accounts ahead of the natural search listings.
While Google’s price comparison service comes below the paid links, it includes images that make it more eye-catching than normal PPC ads.
This puts it in direct competition with high-spending advertisers such as moneysupermarket.com and comparethemarket.com.
This is not the first time Google has gone up against its advertisers. In December it began promoting its own hotel finder above paid links.
So what is the motivation behind its latest move? Does Google seriously want to reposition itself as a price comparison site?
To get a better idea of Google’s plans we asked three SEO experts for their views on the credit card comparison service.
Is Google abusing its market position by promoting its own service at the top of search listings?
Kevin Gibbons, director of strategy at SEOptimise:
As with every change Google makes to its SERPs I always ask two questions; 1) how does this improve relevancy for users, and 2) how does this make Google more money.
In my opinion there's a very thin line between providing what users want and Google getting what it really wants (more searches and more money).
But as much as it may look like they're pushing things too far from an advertiser standpoint (for example, Google have somewhat changed their stance on paid inclusion placement) I honestly believe they are trying to make it more useful for users to compare credit card options.
It just so happens that it also removes the need for users to go straight to the likes of moneysupermarket.com and it will make them a lot of money in the process!
Jon Beeston, director of new product innovation at Adobe
That depends who’s asking.
A credit card provider might not think so, but a comparison website certainly would. It’s certainly promoting its own product in a way that competing sites can’t with their products.
Peter Handley, SEO director at The Media Flow
It certainly seems it to me. You can’t even see the full snippet for the first organic result on my monitor!
Also, the terms say:
Based on your search query, we think you are trying to find a credit card. Clicking in this box will show you credit card providers who can fulfil your request. We may be compensated when the user clicks to contact, fills out an application with, and/or receives a product from a product provider.”
Has Google just made a play to be the biggest affiliate in the world?
This has been on the cards since the acquisition of BeatThatQuote, and Rishi totally got his prediction right on this one a couple of years ago.
Does that mean it’s right? I don’t really think so personally.
Is there anything advertisers or regulators could do to prevent Google from promoting its own products?
I think it's unlikely. If this was a promotion for a Google branded credit card they might have a case, but it's just providing an alternative method of comparing third-party products.
I'm not sure if the fact that they are monetising this comes into it, at least not legally.
Regulators have the power, but it is a slow, considered process, as it should be, when government decides to get involved in business practices.
As for advertisers, it depends – clearly some brands, like Barclaycard and Nationwide, want to be involved in this, otherwise Google wouldn’t have tried this new unit.
To a degree, Google is entitled to do what it wants with its search results, including promotion of its own products.
But do Bing do this? Is it good for the user?
Are consumers going to think because it's a Google service that all credit cards are being compared here? Is this fair to the competition?
And what sanctions could be imposed? Fines?
They will probably just pay any fines, whilst laughing all the way to the bank with the revenues this has brought in while they were able to get away with it.
There could perhaps be some mileage in some sort of anti-competitive lawsuit, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see what comes over the next few days.
The use of images makes the ads appear more imposing than the normal paid search results. Why would Google risk annoying advertisers and users in this way?
Firstly, does it annoy Google's customers?
I think Google see their customers as searchers, not advertisers.
There will always be advertisers on Google for as long as the market is there and they're getting a return on investment.
So if Google can provide searchers with something that they think is useful, I'm not sure if they're too concerned about the advertiser reaction.
Google are in such a strong position in terms of market share, so if anything, it gives advertisers extra incentive to appear as one of the sponsored images and increase their clickthrough rates and, as a result, their profits.
Google sees the flow of ad money from credit card brands to comparison sites, some of which comes to Google via Adwords.
Clearly if it can disintermediate in that process, there’s more money to be made.
The bigger question is whether it’s annoying its users.
Essentially a search on ‘compare credit cards’ delivers a page full of ads on most screen resolutions.
I suspect that users are unlikely to be annoyed by this actually.
With the rise of universal search results and products appearing in sponsored listings, from a user perspective, this is likely to be seen as an evolution of what is already in place rather than anything overly concerning.
If it were to annoy a small percentage of users, but make Google a lot of money from the majority, would they really care? I suspect not.
Google offers comparison services for travel and financial products. Can you see it extending this to include other sectors?
I think they've been developing this for a while and are currently working through the most profitable comparison markets one at a time.
I'd be very surprised if there's not more to come later in the year.
Quite possibly. Under the Larry Page era, Google has shown itself to be much bolder in trying and pushing new things, and killing stuff that isn’t working.
But travel and finance are the titans when it comes to comparison, and I think Google has a long way to go before it can say they’ve mastered them.
My hunch is they will continue to focus on them before going after other verticals.
I think that this is the beginning rather than the end of this process.
At the moment, this is being applied to searches using “compare”, “best” or “cheap” as a trigger for credit cards and bank accounts.
How long will it be before these start to appear on more generic head terms like “credit cards” and “bank accounts” without the trigger words?
Will it be applied to other verticals? If it makes Google money, and you can only imagine that it will, I can see them expanding this sort of approach to any areas that they have the services for already.