Google Cashes in on Shopping

Whoa there. Google – the bastion of free information and (in theory anyway) the very definition of a level playing field has just shifted its goal posts. By a mile.

Yesterday, the search giant announced that its Google Shopping platform will “transition… to a purely commercial model built on Product Listing Ads”. In other words, companies will have to pay to be listed in Google’s Shopping search engine. The move will be complete in the US by autumn, and looks like it will hit the rest of the world next year. Although personally, I’d be amazed if it wasn’t in place by the Christmas shopping period.

“Better” Shopping

Selling the changes as a way to “build a better shopping platform”, there are, in all fairness, good reasons for Google’s move. At the heart of everything it does, is Google’s mission to deliver a better search experience for the user. And of late, the shopping platform hasn’t always been doing that. Companies are able upload information themselves about their products and prices through Google’s shopping feed – thereby leaving it open to abuse. Despite rules in place, unscrupulous merchants are posting prices lower than is the truth, ‘forgetting’ to reset prices after discounts or ‘accidentally’ not including delivery charges – all of which mean higher click-throughs from Googlers who think they’re going to get a bargain, only to realise that the actual price is significantly higher than it first appeared.

According to Google: We believe that having a commercial relationship with merchants will encourage them to keep their product information fresh and up to date. Higher quality data—whether it’s accurate prices, the latest offers or product availability—should mean better shopping results for users, which in turn should create higher quality traffic for merchants.”

And yes. There is a strong argument in this. But on the flipside, Google is a brand which has built its empire on the principle that information should be free and accessible for all. They have also always strived to make that information as complete and as meritocratic as possible. But now, any company that can’t afford to pay for its product to be listed in Google Shopping won’t appear. And the top listings are likely to be taken not only by those who are most relevant to the search, but also by those who are bidding the highest.

Selling out?

Of course, companies who don’t pay for the Shopping feed will still appear in Google’s normal results. But that’s not quite the same. Or the point.

This commercialisation smacks of being a slippery slope towards Google making more of its products ‘exclusively available’ to those who can afford it, rather than everyone. Which surely is in complete opposition to its position as an engine that searches all information available to deliver the best results possible. Is Google Places going to become a new version of the Yellow Pages, where inclusion comes at a price? Or its News platform a Google version of promoted Tweets and Sponsored Stories? One can only assume that this move, despite Google’s claims that it’s about providing a better shopping experience, is being driven at least in part by shareholders demanding more profits. And that’s not a pressure that’s going to go away any time soon.

Google has spent a long time fighting against paid inclusion models. Yes – it has its commercial AdWords platform – but free inclusion in organic listings is at the very heart of the company’s ethos. And although many will understand why it has now made these changes to the Shopping vertical, there will also be many (and many, many, many more) who will be horrified by it.

Just how horrified (and angry) it makes users (and companies) will be something to keep an eye on over the US transition period. Certainly we predict it’s not going to be a change that slips by quietly…