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Is Google Taking Your Traffic?

  |  December 27, 2011   |  Comments

A look back and a look ahead at Google's growing role in e-commerce. How marketers can prepare.

Google is the consumers' choice when searching for information. Will Google be the consumers' choice when shopping? Consider this:

  • Today, Google is one of the top three sites consumers visit during their shopping process. Amazon.com is another. Google has a key relationship with the consumer.
  • Google is the number one source of traffic for commerce sites. Sites are reliant on Google for their traffic that converts to sales.
  • Google constantly innovates the user experience, delivering more relevance and ease to the consumer. Case in point is the Panda/Farmer update that began mid-February and continued through November, one of the most consequential algorithm changes in the last decade. The consumer develops a stronger relationship with Google based on positive experiences.
  • Google continues to improve its shopping and wallet capability and its integrating shopping functionality into the SERP. Google is seeking to be more relevant to the user in the context of shopping.

Customer reviews, the UGC core to consumers' shopping process and a key traffic driver for sites, is also prominent in Google's shopping capability.

No question, Google is a quasi retailer. The questions are, at what point in time will Google's experience be compelling enough to occupy more of the consumers' shopping process? And, what actions should retailers and brands take to be top of mind and get the consumer directly into their shopping experiences (whether those experiences are in their stores, on their site, or on Facebook)? There will be winners and losers.

In this column, I'll set the stage and lay out the timeline and my observations of Google's shopping capabilities. Most readers are aware of the following individual actions. What I've found is very few have pieced together these individual actions, seen the material change over the past months, considered the implications, and clarified the strategy and program in response.

Google Shopping Visual Timeline

2002 Froogle: It all started in 2002 when Froogle launched. Froogle was added as a home page link in early 2004. You'll notice there are only five links above the search box. Froogle is one of those five. As such, Google was clear eight years ago that product search and shopping are a meaningful part of its business.


2007 Shopping: Froogle was removed as a home page link in late 2006. Google rebranded to Google Product Search. And in late 2007, a "Shopping" link occupied one of the coveted spaces above the search box. Shopping is a word consumers easily understand. Froogle, not so much. Great change by Google.



2007 DoubleClick: Google acquired DoubleClick and launched an affiliate advertising network. With this acquisition, Google now has a larger data set of consumer behavior in the context of shopping.

Let's look at a SERP for a portable DVD player (a hot product back in 2008). You'll notice a few things.


  1. Sponsored Links (SEM) occupy the top and right hand rail. Then organic (SEO) gets the balance of the page. Google product search results listings are organized for the consumer, listing products and prices (good). But, the listings are for Home Depot, Macy's, and PC Connection. It's fair to say, these brands were not the brands top of mind for consumers for portable DVD players. Not a great user experience.
  2. Key to note, the links in the product search results listing link directly to the retailer product pages. This is not the case today.

2008 to 2009 Shopping OneBox and Product Listing Ads: Google's innovation in service of the user experience results in more real estate for Google and less for organic on the SERP page one. While the user experience was not optimal, Google learned and is responding.

Let's look at the SERP in January 2010.


  1. Sponsored Links (SEM). Consumers are visual. As such, having a photo of the product significantly enhances the user experience, and the advertisers' satisfaction. You'll also notice Google's Shopping OneBox takes page one real estate. The implication? Organic real estate is now reduced and pushed down on the SERP page one.
  2. Key to note, the links in the product search results listing link directly to Google shopping, not to the retailer or brand product pages. Big change. And, Google does not have the customer reviews, used by 80 percent-plus of consumers in the shopping process. The consumer, as a result, needed to go to the retailer site to get this critical information. This is not the case today.

2010 customer reviews: In April 2010, Google incorporated the consumers' number one social tool in the buying process, customer reviews. Reviews are incorporated in many places: Google shopping (example 1), Google OneBox on the SERP, Google product ads, and in organic search through retailers' and brands' use of Rich Snippets (example 2).



Let's look at the SERP in January 2011.


  1. Google dominates the SERP introducing left hand navigation. New value is delivered to the user via shopping, local, and product availability links. Google now does return top of mind brands for refrigerators in related searches (Sears, Best Buy, Amazon, Abt, Frigidaire), unlike the results for DVD player in 2008. And, you'll notice customer reviews are included in the Shopping OneBox, a significant value for consumers.
  2. Key to note, if the consumer clicks on Best Buy in related searches, she lands on the Google shopping page, not BestBuy.com. The consumer is having a Google experience, not a Best Buy experience. And, on this page, Best Buy paid for an ad.


Google's learning and innovation around shopping continues with the acquisition of Like.com, brand refinements in search results, and the launch of Boutiques.com.

2011 Google+: In July, Google took another run at social networking, unveiling Google+, a big bet for the company and an effort to show that it can keep up with Facebook in this increasingly important space. However, it's important to recognize that the launch of Google+ was not just a run at Facebook - it's a reflection of the increasing importance the company places on social signals in how it indexes, ranks, and presents information to consumers. Even though +1 buttons are not as ubiquitous as the Facebook "Like" button, it's early days. I believe Google can reach the ubiquity Facebook has on sites. Google has the killer app on the web: search. It has an enviable customer franchise with more people engaging with the brand more frequently than any other brand on the planet. Google will/has incorporated +1 into the search algorithm, giving more relevance to the user, continuing to solidify the relationship with the user, and further distancing the direct relationship with your site.

Below, you'll notice Google+ has been incorporated into the search engine results page (SERP) via a toolbar.

click to enlarge

Steps for You to Take

  1. Develop your brand. A strong, differentiated, relevant brand, infused through all your touch points, drives business performance on all dimensions online and offline.
  2. Execute better than anyone on the fundamentals important to consumers. Retailers: product, price, easy to find, in stock, fast checkout, fast delivery. Brands: product innovation and new product introductions.
    • Carry the products your target customer needs and wants. Those products can be available online and/or in your stores. Make sure a product page is on your site even if the product is only available in a store and clearly showing price, the store at which the product is carried and in stock, and customer reviews. And, if you don't carry that product directly, you can supplement your assortment through a marketplace program as Amazon, Walmart, Sears, and others have done.
    • Allow the consumer to easily find the product at the price she's looking for through optimized search and navigation.
    • Make sure once you've done the hard work to get the consumer to your product page and about to click the "add to cart button," you have it in stock and available.
    • Offer a range of easy delivery options online and in-store (order online, pick up in-store).
    • And, get your customer through the checkout line fast; fewer clicks online, and fast checkout lines in store.
  3. Increase the quantity and quality of social content (UGC) on your site, most importantly, customer reviews and questions and answers. This user-generated content in the shopping process matters now more than ever.
    • Customers rely on reviews and Q&A in the shopping process; ensure that you've got substantial UGC volume and a process to ensure that it's constantly updated and fresh.
    • Consumers are accessing reviews and Q&A via a mobile phone and on a tablet anytime including while standing in a store. Organize reviews into the mobile experience so that they're easy to find and browse with at-a-glance summaries highlighting pros, cons, and best uses of a product, in addition to average rating.
    • Google favors UGC in search. Make sure that you've got at least one source of keyword-rich UGC on the product page (next to the "add to cart button") and that your content can be seen and indexed by Google, directly on the product page.
    • One-third of customers are now going to Google shopping (instead of directly to your site) to view customer reviews. Make sure Google has your current customer reviews so they show up in Google Shopping (could be 10-15% of one's traffic) and in SERP results rich snippets.
    • Consumers share product reviews on the social Web, most notably Facebook. Make it easy for your customers to share with an integrated Facebook Connect login.
    • Facebook Storefronts incorporate customer reviews. Ensure your content is built on an open platform that allows for open syndication to Facebook and across the Web.
  4. Set up a Google+ Page for your business and install the +1 button on your site pages. Through its social capability, Google is creating deep hooks directly into its search product. Its early days, but if you want to show up on the SERP page 1 in the future, your customers and your brand will need to be active in Google+.

Deep appreciation to Blake Brysha and AJ Kohn for your insights and collaboration.

This column, first published March 29, 2011, was updated Dec. 27, 2011.

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Cathy Halligan

Cathy has over 20 years of experience in both multichannel and online retail and a deep understanding of consumer needs and goals. Cathy's proven track record spans a range of industries and companies, from start-up ventures to multibillion dollar operations. Cathy is currently a Board Member at Ulta Beauty (ULTA), the largest beauty retailer that provides one-stop shopping for prestige, mass, and salon products and salon services in the United States. She has served as SVP, marketing & sales at PowerReviews, the world's most widely deployed social commerce platform, where she was responsible for overseeing the company's rapid customer and revenue growth. Prior to PowerReviews, Cathy held executive-level positions at Walmart: chief marketing officer Walmart.com, vice president of market development, global e-commerce, and vice president of product management and multichannel integration. Ms. Halligan has also held executive positions with leading retailers Williams-Sonoma, Gymboree, and Blue Nile, and was an associate partner at Prophet, a leading management consulting firm. She started her career as a marketing coordinator at Lands' End.

For real-time social commerce news and updates, follow Cathy on Twitter at @CathyHalligan.

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