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Google switches its Shopping search service to mostly free listings

Google is making a change to its product search offering, meaning that unpaid listings picked by algorithm will dominate results displayed on the Google Shopping tab instead of mostly paid product listings.

In a blog post announcing the move, Bill Ready, president of Google’s commerce division, cited the coronavirus pandemic as a catalyst for Google to speed up a pre-existing plan to switch from Shopping results being determined by paid ad auction to mostly free listings.

Making Shopping listings free for merchants is one way the tech giant is looking to support struggling retailers through the COVID-19 crisis, he suggested.

“Beginning next week, search results on the Google Shopping tab will consist primarily of free product listings, helping merchants better connect with consumers, regardless of whether they advertise on Google,” wrote Ready. “With hundreds of millions of shopping searches on Google each day, we know that many retailers have the items people need in stock and ready to ship, but are less discoverable online.”

The expansion of free listings is slated to be completed by the end of April. Initially it will only take place in the U.S. — but Google says it intends to roll out the change globally before the end of the year.

While Google is packaging the change as a gesture to help cash-strapped retailers during a time of economic crisis, there’s no doubt the tech giant is also spying strategic opportunity to expand its role in e-commerce in the midst of a coronavirus-shaped boom.

With millions of people stuck at home, and scores of physical stores closed or with heavily restricted access, online shopping has seen huge uplift.

So far, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has been the most notable winner, adding a reported $24 billion to his personal wealth since the shutdown began — while ad giants like Google are facing heavy exposure to the crisis, as advertisers hunker down and rip up their 2020 marketing budgets.

If Google Shopping can start returning better results for products, and indeed results for more products, there’s an opportunity for the search giant to grow its share of shopping traffic and grab listings clicks from shoppers who might otherwise have run product queries directly on Amazon.

Google is also using the new free product listings feature as a value add “carrot” — to encourage advertisers to (keep) paying it for ads.

“For retailers, this change means free exposure to millions of people who come to Google every day for their shopping needs. For shoppers, it means more products from more stores, discoverable through the Google Shopping tab. For advertisers, this means paid campaigns can now be augmented with free listings,” is how Ready pitches the switch.

As SearchEngineLand points out, this is actually Google returning to its roots — given the first version of its Shopping service (which was then called Froogle) was also free to list.

The switch to purely paid came in 2012. Though the changes now will still see paid product listings slotted into the top of Google search results if users search for product keywords, as well as into the top of the Shopping tab. So Google isn’t giving up all product ad revenue.

In terms of how it works, existing users of Google’s Merchant Center and Shopping Ads who have already opted into the “surfaces across Google program” won’t have to do anything else — and may already be eligible to show products in what Google’s help center describes as “the unpaid experiences.”

Those needing to opt in can do so by selecting “Growth” and then “Manage programs” in the left nav menu and then choosing the “surfaces across Google” program card.

“You can also add products to your product feed, to make even more products discoverable in these free listings,” Google adds.

For new users of its Merchant Center it says it’s aiming to ramp up the onboarding process “over the coming weeks and months.” But presumably there may be some delay in getting access.

Accompanying the switch is a “new partnership” with PayPal — which Google says will allow merchants to link their accounts in order to “speed up our onboarding process and ensure we’re surfacing the highest quality results for our users.”

Existing partnerships to help merchants manage products and inventory, including those with Shopify, WooCommerce and BigCommerce, are ongoing, it adds.

Google has been paying more attention to Shopping recently — with a major revamp of the service last year.

In 2019, it also merged its Google Express shopping service with Google Shopping, then sunset the Google Express brand. And it took on Pinterest’s visual search experience by integrating Google Lens into Google Shopping to guide customers to similar products as those in photos.

Like Amazon, Google leveraged personalization technology to create a homepage that’s unique to each shopper’s habits and purchases. And like Honey and other price-trackers, it can alert customers to potential savings. But to truly rival Amazon, Google Shopping has to be open to more retailers — and the pay-to-play route doesn’t allow for that, especially now as retailers face financial difficulties due to coronavirus lockdowns.

What’s not mentioned in Google’s blog post is that its Shopping service has faced antitrust intervention in the European Union, which slapped Google with a $2.7 billion fine back in 2017 — finding it had systematically given prominence to its own shopping comparison service in results while also demoting rival comparison shopping services.

The company later rolled out tweaks to the Shopping service in Europe that it said are intended to comply with the antitrust ruling, letting comparison services bid to be displayed in the ads displayed at the top of product related search results. Though rivals have continued to complain about the “remedy,” and the EU’s competition chief suggested last year that additional changes may be needed.

TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez contributed to this report

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Coinbase poaches Google Shopping VP as CPO for cryptocommerce

“We’re trying to shift cryptocurrency from this speculative asset class to driving real-world utility,” Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong tells me. How? Through commerce and micropayments. But now Coinbase has the who to build it. Today the startup announced it has hired away former head of Product for Indian e-commerce giant Flipkart and Google Shopping VP of Product Surojit Chatterjee to become Coinbase’s chief product officer.

“I’ve always enjoyed being associated with technology that is on the brink of changing how we live” writes Chatterjee. “Google ads has helped democratize commerce, Flipkart and ecommerce has revolutionized life in India, and I believe Coinbase is going to turn conventional finance on its head.”

Chatterjee spent more than 11 years at Google over two stints, the first as a founding member of Google’s mobile search Ads product that’s grown to tens of billions in revenue per year. When he starts at Coinbase next week, Armstrong tells me he’ll help Coinbase organize its complex array of products, including its cryptocurrency exchange, wallet, stablecoin, incentivized crypto education platform Earn and Coinbase Commerce that lets businesses take payments in Bitcoin, Ethereum and more. Chatterjee replaces Jeremy Henrickson, the former Coinbase CPO who departed in December 2018.

“Surojit is a huge asset here because we’re a product-led company,” Armstrong says. “We have different leaders and they increasingly have responsibilities around P&L. Having one really experienced chief product officer that can mentor them and teach them to own revenues and budgets — really in the model of Google — that will professionalize Coinbase.”

One opportunity Armstrong hopes Chatterjee can help Coinbase seize on is building products for emerging markets where financial infrastructure is weak. “E-commerce is not equally distributed around the world. Micropayments don’t work that well … Him spending time living in India, a developing market, he deeply understands mobile money.” Given the explosion of phone-based payments, the demonetization and the prevalence of cash on delivery methods in India that Flipkart dealt with, “his background is kind of ideal from that worldly perspective,” Armstrong explains.

Chatterjee cites his upbringing as inspiration to deliver “economic freedom for everyone,” as Armstrong says is Coinbase’s mission. “Growing up in India in a poor middle-class household, I saw very closely what a lack of liquid cash does to a family’s lifestyle,” Chatterjee recalls. 

“As a kid I would go with my mom to a local bank to withdraw money. And believe me when I tell you that the process was epic!” It included withdrawal slips, tokens and anxiously trying to match current signatures to versions decades old. When India demonetized and made everyone exchange their cash, “My dad, who was almost 80 at that time, stood in a queue for five hours to get 2000 Rs, which was the per-day limit for the first week. That’s less than $30!” Digital money could ensure people always have access to everything they own.

Surojit Chatterjee (far right) rides along for a Flipkart delivery to understand the consumer commerce experience

In developed countries, Armstrong sees a chance for Chatterjee to enable digital content creators to turn their passion into their profession. “There’s lots of people who lurk on Reddit or Stack Overflow and answer questions … If there was real money on these things, these could be their full time jobs — contributing content on user-generated social sites,” Armstrong predicts. “I think you’d see a lot more contributions, as well.”

Now might be the perfect time to hire Chatterjee since we’re in a lull period for cryptocurrency in the wake of the rush at the end of 2018. “Crypto is always challenging to navigate. In these periods when it’s relatively quiet, we tend to do really well,” Armstrong says. The company grew market share, volume and app installs versus competitors between 50% and 100%, according to the CEO. Referencing ancient war strategy, Armstrong concludes that, “There’s years where you just want to train the soldiers and stockpile resources and you’re basically just preparing. We’re building the company, not just responding to crazy hype.”

Source: TechCrunch