As the retail industry anxiously awaits another holiday season amid difficult conditions, Google is also hoping to attract shoppers with new search features.
Over the next several days Google plans to introduce several new features to Google Shopping, the product search category of its site. As detailed by CNET earlier this summer, the idea is to blend online and offline shopping by providing information such as the location of local stores and whether a product is in stock at a retail store, said Sameer Samat, director of product management.
Starting today, Google users will see two new links on search-results pages for product searches: stores nearby and an inventory update, which will advise shoppers if a product is in stock, in limited quantities, or out of stock. A click on an individual product page will also return a list of nearby stores that carry that product with an embedded Google Map for obtaining directions.
E-commerce is old hat at this point, but even with the dramatic growth in online shopping over the last 15 years 93 percent of all shopping still takes place in retail outlets, Samat said. Still, lots of people--nearly half, according to Google's data--do research online comparing specs, prices, and features before heading out to stores.
Google already knows that a lot of people use its search engine for that research, but it would also like to develop closer partnerships with retail stores that have agreed to upload their catalog listings and inventory data to Google's databases. At the moment, Google isn't going to be sharing the data of shoppers on its pages with retail partners, but it is likely to work out some sort of way to share aggregate data with those companies at some point in the future, allowing retailers to see how generic Google users found their products, which stores they prefer, and other online shopping habits.
At some point, Google would like to extend this to smaller businesses, marrying its Google Shopping services with the local Google Places listings, but it's not quite ready to head down that road, Samat said. Over 70 large retailers are on board for the initial launch, including Macy's, Pottery Barn, and Best Buy, and Google has also struck deals with enterprise software companies JDA, Epicor, and Oracle to integrate the Google Shopping upload process into the inventory management systems of those retailers.
Google has also added something it's calling "aisles" to product search-results pages, in hopes of taking an extremely broad search such as "camera lenses" and distilling it down into various ways to refine that category, such as shopping by brand, features, or aperture in this case.
Retail stores are very good at drawing consumers in for one specific item but convincing them to buy other things in the store that they simply happen upon while trying to find the fitting room or checkout counter. That's not necessarily the case online: while some online stores like Amazon are good at serving recommendations, Google's product search pages suffer from a glut of information that hasn't always been organized into neat categories.
Samat hopes that will change with the aisles, which will give consumers ways to shop through different categories of a product and expose them to other options they might not have known about when starting their search. Google also plans to highlight popular products on broad searches like camera lenses by measuring activity on certain product pages.
These features will show up when conducting a search through the "Shopping" link on the left-hand side of the search results page, but Google will also surface a box containing some product-related search results on regular Web searches, as it does for images, videos, and news under certain conditions through its universal search strategy.
And since a major part of the modern shopping experience now involves looking up details about a product on a smartphone while standing in the store, Google is making a few refinements to its Google Shopper Android app. It's adding the "stores near me" feature as well as the inventory checks to the mobile application, which should be made available in the Android Market later this week.