The Product Search Revolution

Written on
Feb 16, 2016 
Marcus Tober  |

How the options for discovering and researching products online are expanding.

The way consumers discover and research product purchases online has been evolving, with people increasingly starting to take advantage of all the available channels. While Google and the other search engines once took center stage in product search, in recent years they have been facing stiff competition from online marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay – and increasingly from social media. As product search is a market worth billions of dollars, there is now a battle ensuing between all the major players to own this space. And of course marketers – especially in retail – need to keep a close eye on how things are changing.

A survey by Searchmetrics into US consumers’ product search behavior ahead of the 2015 holiday season, revealed that of the 2,000 respondents, 62% would be turning to Amazon to research their seasonal gift purchases, while 44% planned to search on Google (see chart below). Crucially, social media sites including Facebook (27%), Pinterest (27%), Instagram (16%) and Twitter (12%) all received significant mentions in this survey. While this data relates specifically to seasonal purchases, it provides a good general picture of the shift in how consumers are making their decisions

The rise of the smartphone adds another dimension to the story. According to the Searchmetrics survey, 67% of people planned to use their phone to research gifts online, while 20% claimed it was the only device they would use. Smartphones allow searches to be made anyplace, anywhere, anytime and Pew Research Center data suggests that 68% of American adults now own one.

As is to be expected, Google hasn’t rested on its laurels while these changes have been occurring. In 2012, the year in which industry analyst, Forrester, published research indicating it was losing out in product searches to Amazon, Google controversially overhauled its shopping service. It did away with the free retailers’ product listings in search results and replaced them with a purely commercial model in which retailers have to buy Product Listing Ads (PLAs) to feature in the Google Shopping channel. Google now displays PLAs (which include a product image, price and other details) in its search results for appropriate keyword searches. For example, a search for ‘red shoes’ will throw up a number of PLAs showing red shoes from a selection of different retailers.

The change to Google Shopping meant searchers can now see instant, comparative product information and images related to their query from a variety of suppliers ‒ a format which competes directly with the information and experience available from sellers on Amazon. And because the ads are now paid for rather than being free listings, there is a bigger incentive for retailers to make sure the product information that appears is accurate and up to date.

Google Shopping has since been rolled out globally
and retail marketers have been quick to recognize the value it delivers for targeting product focused search queries. In fact Searchmetrics’ US data shows that the number of PLAs grew by 900% over the course of 2013 to 2014 (see chart).

In 2015 Google made some important changes that help improve things for those that want to use their phones for product search. Firstly, it rolled out the Google mobile-friendly algorithm update which rewards those web pages that are easier to view and navigate via a smartphone with higher organic search rankings. This has obviously driven many retailers to optimize their product pages for phones, meaning that phone users receive a better experience via the search engine.

Secondly, ahead of the 2015 holiday season, Google introduced a new user-friendly mobile interface for the Google Shopping service which includes features that make it easier to conduct product searches using phones. For example, if someone is looking for “tricycles for kids” Google will now “show tricycles grouped by attributes that people commonly shop by: features, brand, and price.” They can also “easily browse through lots and lots of products without having to load entirely new pages to see more” and even see if products they see are available in nearby stores.

Social media sites have also been ringing the changes to help make product search easier. For example, Facebook recently launched its offensive in the form of product ads, which allow retailers to promote their entire product catalog across all the devices their customers use. “With product ads, businesses can showcase more products and people on Facebook can discover more relevant products” claims the company. The sheer number of Facebook users, coupled with the detailed targeting variables and options the site provides give it some big advantages.

Pinterest, the image sharing site – already widely used by retailers to showcase their products – introduced ‘Buyable Pins’ last year to help consumers move quickly from product search to product purchase. Buyable Pins let Pinterest users buy directly from merchants on the site via a number of e-commerce platforms. At the same time, Instagram made it easier for users to discover products on its feeds last year by opening itself up to more advertisers.

If there is one thing to take away from the way product search is evolving, it is that simply being visible in any one of the channels isn’t enough. It is imperative that retailers take a multi-channel approach, of course paying particular attention to the shift towards mobile. It continues to be important to track and maintain visibility in both organic and paid Google searches (as well other important search engines) as well as Google Shopping. At the same time, building and monitoring your presence across social networks and ensuring your web content and product information are regularly shared on these sites is a another must. Lastly, even if your business is not present on marketplaces such as Amazon, it may be worthwhile monitoring competitors who are.


Marcus Tober is co-founder and CTO of Searchmetrics, the world leader in search analytics software. As the company’s CTO, he is responsible for advanced technology research, product development, and SEO consulting programs. While studying media design and computer science in Berlin, Marcus was already focused on search engine optimization, and he quickly became one of the leading SEO experts in Germany. Marcus wrote his graduate thesis on the origin of linkvendor.com, the well-known platform for free SEO tools. He began his professional career in SEO at Idealo. Seeing the need for an integrated and professional SEO software solution led Marcus to found Searchmetrics GmbH jointly with Holtzbrinck eLab in 2007. In addition to his work in the SEO field, Marcus has built a number of successful commercial web ventures.

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