Google wants shoppers to think of its search engine as the entire mall, rather than just the directory.
Millions of people already use Google as a resource when getting ready to buy something, whether that's to double-check their instincts against professional or user reviews, compare prices across different retailers, or figure out whether it will fit in that spot under the window. This search category is an essential part of Google's oft-stated mission to organize the world's information and one that makes it quite a bit of money: product-related search results pages are clustered with ads.
But one thing Google doesn't do very well is provide the shopping-as-adventure experience that fills real-world malls and shopping Web sites like Amazon on a daily basis. You might go to the mall with a specific product in mind, but a well-designed mall or department store forces you to discover--and hopefully purchase--other products that you might not have even known you wanted: the marketing types like to call this "serendipity."
Google wants to be known as a destination for that kind of experience, said Sameer Samat, director of product management. That means shoppers will spend more time on Google's pages, encouraging retailers and advertisers to share more data and spend more money with Google.
After years of trying and failing to reach that goal, Google plans to give it another go over the coming months. Don't expect Google to turn into a full-blown online retailer among the likes of Amazon.com or Buy.com just yet. But the combination of personalized features for product search pages and what Samat thinks is "the largest database of products that has been created" could entice people to actually shop on Google: assuming they get past any privacy concerns.
On back order
Google has been chasing this dream almost since its inception. It initially started in 2001 by letting searches browse the pages of retail catalogs that uploaded their data to Google, and announced Froogle, a price-comparison site, in 2002.
But since puns are indeed the lowest form of humor, Froogle's name was not a hit and neither was the site. Google finally pulled the plug in 2007, integrating product-related search results into its main search pages through the universal search strategy it rolled out that year. The current "Google Product Search" site, confusingly, is the destination when one clicks on "shopping" at the top of Google.com.
The idea so far has been to give shoppers as much information as they could possibly want on a given product, Samat said, going beyond prices to highlight features, pictures, and specs. About 100,000 retailers eagerly send Google updated data each night on the products they have in stock in order to have that information listed on the product page, he said.
In recent months Google has quietly increased the amount of information that can be found in an individual product page, adding details such as user reviews gathered from the Web, pictures, videos, and even information about products in stock at nearby stores. But that hasn't turned Google into a shopping destination.
Shopping as fun, not a task
Google's current approach works best for those who are on a mission when they shop, shoppers who already know what they want and are just looking for additional information before sealing the deal. Perhaps it's not that surprising that a company driven by (mostly) male engineers wound up on that path.
There are millions of other people who treat shopping as leisure, rather than a simple transaction. These are people who shop online and offline but prefer browsing to targeted shopping, knowing that every now and then they'll discover something totally unique or completely unexpected.
Google wants to serve more of those people, as they could go a long way toward improving the time spent on Google's shopping sites as well as clicks through to ads or Google retail partners. It has two ideas in mind:
The first idea--which is already live--is the use of the mobile device as the bridge between the online data-rich world and the offline visually rich world. For example, mobile searchers can see what stores carry a certain product near their current location, and Google offers an Android application that lets shoppers scan the bar codes of products they see in stores to get other prices, reviews, and the rest of the information available on Google's product pages.
The second idea is still a concept as opposed to a product under development, but it gives an idea of where Google wants to go with its shopping services.
Google is intrigued by the idea of offering shoppers a chance to build "shopping lists" of products they are thinking about buying, Samat said in a recent interview with CNET. For example, you could maintain a list somewhere on Google that with a push of a smartphone button could tell you which products on that list are available near your current location, and at what prices. Likewise, it could make recommendations based on that list of products and lists submitted by others to help you discover new products: sort of like Amazon's recommendations page meets Pandora's radio stations meets Google.
"Shopping is not just about search, it's not just about intent, it's about discovery," Samat said. "If we can do it, and do it well, we will have built something that's really amazing; it should be the most comprehensive experience for shopping you could ever find."
Just one second...
There's something about the combination of the words "comprehensive" and "Google" that sets off alarm bells around the world.
Should consumers flock to Google's shopping service, the search giant could be poised to create the most wide-ranging merchant-loyalty service we've ever seen, taking the data submitted by retailer partners and its already existing treasure trove of search queries and combining that with actual user preferences. Retailers and product companies would love to get their hands on that kind of data on consumer behavior gathered, processed, and analyzed at Google-scale.
Samat is aware of these concerns. "We need to be careful about what information is shared with whom," he said, saying Google wouldn't share information with advertisers or partners unless the user gave his or her approval.
However, he also noted that shoppers at grocery stores or electronics retailers are all too happy to share information on what they are buying and when they bought it in order to earn instant or future discounts. Samat would not discuss whether Google had specific plans for such a service, but promised that changes would be coming to Google Product Search over the next several months, especially as we draw closer to the holiday shopping season.
As with any major Google expansion, such a move could be instantly subject to scrutiny from regulators prompted by complaints from other online retailers such as Amazon, Buy.com, or the granddaddy of them all: Wal-Mart. The major difference between what Google is pondering and what those other companies offer is that Google does not appear ready to take the next step and actually sell these products through its site, even though that would have meant it had finally figured out a way to get people to use the much-maligned Google Checkout service.
But Google has long claimed that it already competes for "search" attention with places like Amazon, since people often search for product information on Amazon knowing they can go ahead and buy it should that information pass muster.
At this point, it all depends on how--or if--Google chooses to roll out such a service. While shopping online has become very old news in 2010, it remains one of the more elusive parts of Google's mission to be at the center of the Internet.