The move was framed as a measure to help retailers that are struggling during the coronavirus pandemic to “reconnect” with consumers online at scale. Interestingly, Google implied that this change had already been in the works but had been brought forward as a result of the crisis, writing that it was “advancing [its] plans to make it free for merchants to sell on Google.”

On top of this, Google announced a new partnership with PayPal that would allow merchants to link their accounts and speed up the onboarding process – an important step for businesses that can’t afford to waste any time in getting additional sources of revenue up and running.

Taken together, what will these changes mean for businesses in the current crisis – and further into the future? And how will they affect search marketers and the wider search landscape? We turned to some experts to get their thoughts.

Giving Google a boost in the product search race

Malte Landwehr, VP Product at Searchmetrics:

I believe this announcement means Google has realised that it’s losing out in the race to become the top destination for product search – where consumers go to research products and make online purchases. And while it’s positioning the news that it’s making its Google Shopping product listings free in order to help smaller retailers caught up in the COVID-19 crisis, Google must also have one eye on the likely ecommerce boom that’s going to happen as ‘locked down’ consumers are forced to make purchases online rather than going to physical stores.

In the end, Google Shopping has become a pretty light-weight product search engine and ecommerce marketplace. Right now, Amazon and eBay are the dominant players in this space. In fact, it’s unclear if Google Shopping is even number three in the United States, where it’s also competing with the likes of Walmart and niche marketplaces such as Etsy for product search traffic.

In most of its other key markets such as general web search, video search, maps and local search, Google is still number one. And that’s a nice position to be in before starting to monetise a service. With Google Shopping I think it’s introducing free product listings to try and retain and increase its market share. Many other services from Google are free – it’s something the company often does to capture market share.

I also believe that the current positive run that Amazon has in the stock markets is an important factor. It seems analysts and investors find KPIs like “number of sellers” or “number of SKUs” in a marketplace much easier to understand than the obscure patents that Google has in areas such as Natural Language Processing or similar.

Levelling the playing field for small businesses

John Earnshaw, Chief Product Evangelist at Pi Datametrics:

This will immediately have the most beneficial impact on small and perhaps medium sized businesses as it will quickly and effortlessly put them on an almost level playing field with bigger players in ways that would previously not have been possible. This is especially true with improved PayPal integration. The timing of this initiative could not have been better.

Matt Brown, Director of Media at Syzygy:

For companies that historically hadn’t gone near Shopping campaigns, like a new online retailer, what a wonderful opportunity. The biggest barrier to entry (cost) just got thrown out the window. But this is not an approach to be undertaken without thinking of how it impacts on other channels and touchpoints.

If you had relied on Shopping campaigns previously, and haven’t been prioritising SEO, you could be in for a rough ride – standing out in the virtual space is a different beast to typical storefronts, and it can require continual maintenance.

An opportunity for retailers whatever Google’s motives

Wesley Parker, Managing Director at Clicteq:

There is a saying that “you only know who is swimming naked when the tide goes out” and the coronavirus pandemic has been that tide for the UK brick and mortar retail industry, with numerous household name retailers collapsing into administration.

Google’s announcement to make results within the Google Shopping tab free is an unprecedented move to react to what is an unprecedented time. This will provide a great opportunity for brick and mortar retailers to go digital and help stem losses and keep their business afloat by getting their products in front of millions of readers until we are through to the other side of this crisis.

But make no mistake, even though this is a great PR move, this space is going to be freemium and will be a gateway to help generate interest in Google paid shopping campaigns as it responds to Amazon solidifying its dominance in shopping. Brands will also have to think about their strategy for earning this space, once it becomes more clear how you rank.

How will listings be ranked in ‘organic’ Google Shopping?

John Earnshaw:

From an organic perspective, a big question is – under the paid-for layer – if these are truly organic results, how will they be ranked?

That last bit for me is the most interesting question.

Building ‘one’ view of search

Matt Brown:

For SEO, this news further highlights the need to be closer to PPC teams. Building this ‘one’ view of search means, regardless of whether things are paid for or organic, you’re ready for the inevitable changes that Google consistently throws our way, from algorithm changes to updates.

From a PPC perspective, we now have to consider what will happen to those budgets previously spent on shopping campaigns? Often clients don’t switch media money into SEO-driven retainers. That money has to stay in media, perhaps in PPC campaigns. If that happens we can expect to see our CPCs fluctuate: higher demand for less inventory will mean a price increase.

So what do brands need to do? Here are five things you need to consider now (not tomorrow!):

  1. Where will you shift your PPC budget? Think broader terms, protecting your brand, and alternative channels rather than a gold rush to seize this opportunity
  2. Prioritise SEO. If you haven’t, you’re in trouble – you need to get a hold of your SEO roadmaps and make sure they are main priority
  3. If you haven’t run Shopping campaigns before, then you need to get all the essential components ready, such as your feed. Make sure they are in as robust a state as they can be before activation
  4. Build a ‘one search’ approach. SEO and PPC – whether at one agency, between two, or in-house – should have a fully joined-up approach that maximises your organisation’s visibility.

Be ready for your competitors. If you’re doing the above well, so are they! You need to be prepared for their activity – as it will impact your own plans.

Learn more

Want to brush up on your SEO and PPC skills? Check out our paid search and SEO best practice guides. Econsultancy also offers SEO training.