If you ask retail marketers what has changed the landscape most as it relates to the upcoming holiday season, you might expect their answers to revolve around mobile shopping, omni-channel, content marketing, or social.
More often than not, however, retailers will say that the biggest changes impact their efforts and performance this holiday season compared to previous years will come from their old friend Google. And not even the "sexier" parts of Google like Google+, Android, and Chrome.
Google's core search business has been undergoing some major changes right under our very noses, and these changes will have a profound impact on a retailer’s ability to drive sales this holiday.
Product Listing Ads
By now, every retailer has probably come to the realization that Google is aggressively attacking the e-commerce space with the introduction and expansion of product listing ads (PLAs) over the last year or so. It is hard to conduct a retail query in Google anymore without seeing image/price-based ads occupying a healthy chunk of the paid real estate. Not surprisingly, these ads click through and convert at higher rates than text ads and so we will continue to see more distribution throughout this holiday season.
While on its head, this integration of product inventory into the search results pages (SERPs) is a good thing for retail marketers; it requires a distinct shift in how paid search (often the lion's share of a retailer's Q4 budget) is managed.
By moving from a keyword auction marketplace to a product feed driven 'matching' marketplace, SEM on Google this Q4 looks a lot more like SEO, requiring an additional set of skills, as well as some potential infrastructure changes in order to succeed.
Panda, Penguin, and Other Organic Changes
Google has recently been on a binge of organic search changes that, under the guise of cute animal names, have ferociously cut at the heart of efforts to game the Google algorithms. Shifting investment away from SEO toward other areas (like content marketing) might be beneficial for retailers hoping to capitalize this holiday season.
Additionally, the PLA shifts mentioned above continue to push organic listings further down the page for retailers, thus making it more difficult to get yield out of their SEO efforts. This should have the added effect of Google clawing back more retail search traffic from Amazon and EBay (traditionally huge SEO players in retail), making Google an even large piece of ad expenditure in Q4.
AdWords Enhanced Campaigns
By further changing the rules of is core ad platform, Google sent retail advertisers scrambling to react this year. The most significant change requires advertisers to spend across multiple device types (tablet, mobile, desktop) as opposed to allowing them to pick and choose.
This holiday season, retailers will need to truly understand what ROI they are getting from mobile channels before setting up their holiday campaigns. This traffic source is growing rapidly, but unless retailers can respond to this demand in a net positive way, it will be more difficult for them to compete on Google.
Content Integration into SERP
For years, Google was known for the simplicity of its SERPs: a few ads and 10 blue links. Today, it is staggering how much additional content can be integrated. From maps, to weather, to movie times, and stock quotes, a search on Google is now a journey into an information-rich experience as opposed to strictly navigational.
Beyond the PLA pruning + inventory integrations mentioned above, retailers now have the opportunity to present searchers with SKU specific promotions (via sitelinks and/or promotions IDs), store specific locations/inventory, lead capture forms, and local phone numbers.
For a retailer, these updates represent an opportunity to improve exposure, consistency, and accuracy of information for qualified shoppers. It also means spending more time and effort giving more and more data to Google, who will likely benefit from it down the road.
Google is doing a lot of things these days to further establish its position as the dominant software company on the planet. Whether its laying fiber for free WiFi, designing self-driving cars, or owning the dominant mobile operating system, both consumers and businesses need to pay close attention to what Google is doing.
However, if I'm a retailer this holiday, I would focus the most energy on Google's original product, its search results page, to make my numbers hum.