Google’s attempt to marginalize competition in the online shopping arena has led it to shift from a free comparison shopping search platform, formerly known as Google Product Search, to a for-pay marketplace called Google Shopping.
The change, projected to take place October 2012, will require merchants interested in advertising their products in the new digital space to pay for their placement in a bidding scheme that some critics fear may squeeze out the small-business owner.
Product ranking will also involve an algorithmic component that will take into account the relevance to consumer searches, the freshness of the product information and other factors, but the bid will be a factor as well. Generally speaking, the higher the bid the better the placement, all other things considered.
Google reps say they’re moving to a commercial model because they believe it will encourage merchants to keep their product line and prices updated and help create a more robust marketplace for consumers. There’s little doubt this is true, but one must ask whether that could be accomplished simply by letting the algorithm weed out the less relevant merchants and/or products.
Merchants who choose not to pay will still be a part of Google’s organic search results based on its Web crawling and data collection, but they will not be included in the new Google Shopping area or new product areas dedicated to paying merchants in “sponsored” parts of search engine results pages (SERPs). The search giant will continue with experiments on how SERPs will look as they refine the effort through the summer, but the rollout is projected to come well before the 2012 holiday shopping season.
The response from critics and merchants is mixed, but of course it’s not hard to find the voice of dissent whenever Google decides to start charging for something it once provided for free. The biggest general complaint revolves around the additional cost and time it will take for small businesses to compete with larger retailers. Some businesses will likely fail to adapt quickly enough when it comes to things like understanding the bidding process and managing the data feed.
Of course, none of that is Google’s fault and it should be no surprise the company would like to monetize a service it’s been giving away for a decade. As the war for online merchant space between Google, Amazon and other players heats up all of them will try to find new ways to compete and make money, and the costs of combat will often be shouldered by the “little guy.”