Is It Free to Sell On Google? The Return of ‘Froogle’ & What’s Really Going on During COVID-19

Aaron Orendorff

by Aaron Orendorff

Apr. 28 2020

The announcement hit like a freight train.

Seven words in 31 characters … with a force all out of proportion to its length: “It’s now free to sell on Google.”

By end of day (Apr. 21), the refrain had been picked up, repeated, and amplified far beyond the tracks of retail.

There’s just one problem:

Google Shopping Ads aren’t free. And, for ecommerce, they never will be.

Google Shopping Free for Ecommerce Headlines and News During Coronavirus

So, what’s really going on with the return of “Froogle” amidst COVID-19?

To answer that question, we first need a lay of the Google Shopping, Google Ads, and ecommerce landscape

What Are Google Ads in Ecommerce?

When we talk about Google for online retailers, what we’re really focused on are Google Shopping Campaigns — or, Product Listing Ads (PLAs).

Google Ads (previously known as Google AdWords) operate on keywords, copywriting, and ad text. PLAs, on the other hand, run through Google Shopping via an ecommerce store’s “product feed.”

Google Shopping Ads Product Listing Ads Examples

These feeds are essentially product data files. Picture an exhaustive spreadsheet with all the information about everything available on your Shopify or BigCommerce store:

  • Name (title)
  • Description
  • Product images
  • Product category
  • Type, size, and color
  • Etc.

Once an online store connects its Google Merchant Center Account, Google Shopping uses that data to create PLAs automatically. If someone’s search terms match your product information based on “relevance,” up pops your shopping ad.

Google Shopping Ecommerce Ads - Mother’s Day Candles

Similar to Facebook Ads and regular Google Ads, Shopping campaigns operate on an auction system. With PLAs, however, you bid ad spend on products or product groups instead of CPM or PPC and CPC keywords.

For direct-to-consumer (DTC) clients at Common Thread Collective, we spend the majority of our time, energy, and SEM (search engine marketing) budget inside Google Shopping.

Its dominance as a delivery system is why Google’s free announcement hit so hard. The question then becomes …

Why Is ‘Free’ Google Shopping Anything But?

What you might not have noticed from the screenshots above was a tab titled “Shopping.” In fact, you might not have ever noticed it — even from your own thousand upon thousands of Google searches.

It’s like the old SEO joke:

“Where’s the best place to hide a dead body? The second page of Google.”

Only in this case, more so.

Here’s a quick example to show you what I mean …

Google “mother’s day candles” and — in order of SERP (search engine results page) appearance — you’ll get …

  1. PLAs at the very top
  2. Traditional Google Ads next
  3. Followed by organic search results

Although organic results might look buried in the screenshots below, they devour the lion’s share of clicks on both mobile and desktop.

Google Ads and Google Shopping Examples from Search Engine Results Page

“Shopping,” on the other hand, is a separate tab. One for which Google has yet to release usage data like clickthrough rates and visibility. There you’ll find another round of paid ads before finally discovering the “free” listings lauded last week.

The other minor detail — read: major caveat — is how customers make those listing purchases …

Rather than click through to a website, the purchase takes place on Google.

Google Shopping Actions, Google Free Product Listings, and Buy on Google

This introduction of native buying isn’t new. But it does add another layer of intrigue to the news … as well as point toward what’s really going on with Google’s big news.

Where is Google Shopping Headed?

Two years ago, Google began talking about a program called “Shopping Actions.” In 2019, the conversation accelerated. By the close of 2020, it will have arrived.

In essence, Shopping Actions is Google’s answer to its own set of pressing questions, “How can we own more of the ecommerce process? How can we make it all-inclusive? What if no one had to leave the ecosystem?”

And now, they don’t.

With existing Ads and PLAs, businesses pay per click. In contrast, with “buy on Google,” Google processes the transaction and sends a percentage of revenue less commission.

This version of Google Shopping, this Google marketplace, is fundamentally different than anything that’s happened on Google Ads before.

Think about how it relates to Amazon.

Temporary downturn aside, Amazon owns new product discovery — along with a slim majority of online retail in the US. The number of products available on Amazon compared to what’s fed into Google is night and day. And ads on Amazon are one of its fastest-growing revenue streams.

Amazon Ad Revenues and Online Product Discovery vs Google and Search Engines

Roll in Google marinating and nurturing this program to assume ownership of the checkout process and you start to get a sense of where the train is headed.

PR play? Sure. A touch of virtue to it? Maybe. But let’s call a spade, a spade: free is a very relative term.

Google’s go-to-market strategies have always hinged on “free.” It gave away search for free. It gave away Gmail for free. It gave away Drive and Maps and Business Listings for free. It’s given away tool after tool.

What does Google get in return? Data.

The difference this time is that it’s also a showdown: a battle between two Goliaths over who is going to own the future of ecommerce.

For now, success still revolves around your feed, branded search, and connecting demand generation with demand capture.

(1) Google Shopping Feed

Understanding how to work with data feeds is the single biggest challenge and opportunity for any ecommerce site. That fact remains true as we lean into making sure CTC clients are represented on “free shopping” and Shopping Actions.

There’s nothing Google loves more than high-quality, clean, well-structured data.

Five Steps for Better Product Feed Results
  1. Start with an easy-to-use integration like Google Shopping by Shopify or Feed for Google Shopping
  2. Then, use tools like GoDataFeed, Feedonomics, or Simprosys to format and structure your data for Google’s product-feed specifications
  3. Pay close attention to your titles; the tools above allow you to modify titles before submitting them, without adjusting your product page (PDP)
  4. Monitor Google Merchant Center for issues; Google regularly checks for inconsistencies between your feed and store — if it finds them, disapproval and removal from SERPs follows
  5. Lastly, connect your product reviews to Google Merchant Center; Yotpo — as well as other pre-approved review aggregators — do this with just a few clicks so that rates appear within your ads and organic results

(2) Branded Search Ads

Even with the dominance of Shopping campaigns as our primary focus, branded search will continue to play an important role.

At CTC we use branded search to defend SERP real estate against competitors, publish promotions, tell interesting stories, leverage the flexibility over organic listings, and “message the moment”— during any time that calls for saying just the right thing.

(3) Demand Capture

Using Paid Search and Shopping campaigns to effectively capture demand generated through paid social advertising is a critical function of the channel.

It’s all about plugging holes in your sales funnel (especially towards the bottom). At CTC, we like to call it the “brand lasso.”

Search is an intent-driven medium. By the time a consumer actively looks for your brand, they’re past the awareness stage of AIDA and well into interest, desire, or action.

While we believe the majority of that capture will continue to come from highly-positioned, paid listings, we also recognize there’s a meaningful strategy shift percolating up in Mountain View.

Google Shopping Actions for Ecommerce

Ecommerce, Google Shopping Actions & What ‘Free’ Means

In the coming months, Google’s train will do nothing but pick up speed.

Its retail plans are ambitious … extending from search queries and digital marketing to now touch ecommerce businesses directly. Already, Shopping Actions talks about the ability to “sell your products directly on Google surfaces.”

“Buy” buttons on YouTube. Voice shopping through Google Assistant on Android phones and Google Home devices. Even letting users shop and buy directly from Google Image search results. 

I love working with Google. I’m a big fan of Google and everything that we do with them. However, Google is always thinking around the corner.

As for a free ride? No. That’s one thing that’ll never happen.

You can kick me out of ecommerce if it does.

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    Aaron Orendorff

    Aaron is the VP of Marketing at CTC. Previously the Editor in Chief of Shopify Plus, his content has appeared on Forbes, Mashable, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, The New York Times, and more. Connect with Aaron on Twitter or LinkedIn (especially if you want to talk about bunnies or #LetsGetRejected).