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Google vs. Amazon: The Battle for Ecommerce Dominance

August 27, 2019

Nothing gets people going like a good rivalry. Jason Varitek planting his catcher’s mitt directly on Alex Rodriguez’ face is an iconic moment in professional baseball history. Pusha T setting Twitter on fire with the news of Drake’s secret child was the most memorable hip-hop moment of 2018. John Wick dethroning Mission: Impossible as this decade’s coolest, most incredibly unrealistic action film franchise is more important to me than I’d care to admit.

google-vs-amazon-red-sox-vs-yankees-rivalry

But the intensifying rivalry we’ll be looking at today has nothing to do with sports teams, rappers, or indestructible men who—much to my disappointment—don’t actually exist. Instead, we’re here to talk about tech companies—Google and Amazon, to be more specific.

During last month’s Google Marketing Live keynote, Google’s VP of Engineering for Shopping and Travel, Oliver Heckmann, announced two big changes coming to Google Shopping this year:

  • A bigger, better Google Shopping experience
  • The expansion of showcase shopping ads

Although the majority of this post will be dedicated to breaking down these announcements, we think it’s important to frame them within their broader context: As Amazon continues to improve its rapidly growing ad business, Google means to dominate ecommerce.

Google vs. Amazon: Setting the scene

The digital advertising market has been a duopoly for a while now. At the time of this writing, roughly 60% of digital ad spend goes to Google and Facebook. Although Microsoft (which owns Bing and LinkedIn) and Verizon (which owns AOL and Yahoo) hold steady market shares, neither of them has struck experts as legitimate contenders to become the industry's third giant.

google-vs-amazon-digital-marketing-market

Via Statista.

Enter: Amazon. As of 2018, it’s the most popular place to search for a product online—a title formerly held by Google. Although millions of consumers are beginning new product searches on Google every day—indeed, this alone is reason to run Shopping ads—Amazon now reigns as the go-to ecommerce marketplace. Accordingly, advertisers are shifting more and more dollars to Amazon, thus driving the company’s ad sales through the roof. In Q1 of 2019, their advertising revenue spiked to nearly $3 billion—a far cry from Google’s quarterly mark of $30 billion, but potentially significant of an industry sea change nonetheless.

As is the case with all good rivalries, one party’s zig is met with the other party’s zag. Google isn’t going to sit idly by while Amazon takes bigger and bigger chunks of its ad revenue. That would be the tech equivalent of Drake failing to clap back after Pusha T exposed his—oh, right.

So, how does Google respond? By improving Google Shopping and delivering more value to their ecommerce advertisers. That’s exactly what they’ve done with these changes unveiled at Google Marketing Live. Let’s take a look at each one in turn.

Change #1: A bigger, better Google Shopping experience

Amazon’s comprehensiveness makes it appealing. No matter what you’re using the platform to look for, you’ll probably find a wealth of information about it. This is crucial, of course, because a lot goes into online shopping. As much as we’d like it to be the case, consumers don’t simply head to Google, do a quick search, and pick one of the options presented to them. Along the path from inspiration to purchase, they like to answer quite a few questions:

  • Brands: Who’s offering what I’m looking for?
  • Prices: How much should I expect to pay?
  • Locations: Is this available in any stores near me?
  • Features: Which option best meets my unique needs?
  • Reviews: What are other people saying about each option?

Although some of these questions are more important than others—too high of a price can be prohibitive, for example—each of them plays a role in influencing purchase decisions. The less work consumers have to do to find this information, the less frustrating their online shopping experiences. Amazon has proven this, and Google has taken note—and their vision for the new Google Shopping experience proves it. Let’s take a look at its major value propositions.

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1. Easily find and purchase the most relevant products

Rolling out this year, the new Shopping experience enables users to browse millions of products and find all the information they need to make informed purchase decisions. When someone searches for a product (e.g., running sneakers), they’ll be able to filter the results according to their personal needs and preferences. Whether they’re looking for a specific brand, color, size, feature, price, or any other attribute you can think of, Google Shopping will deliver them the most relevant results.

Once the shopper has found the perfect pair of running sneakers, they’ll have their pick of buying options: from the seller’s website, from a nearby brick-and-mortar store, or—in certain cases—directly from Google within the Shopping interface. The latter option signifies the effort to incorporate the best parts of Google Express—Google’s less-than-thriving shopping cart and delivery solution—into the new Shopping experience. If a shopper does decide to purchase directly from Google, they’ll enjoy the comfort of guaranteed returns and customer support.

google-vs-amazon-purchase-within-google-shopping

In other words, the reimagined Google Shopping is a full-fledged ecommerce marketplace—a direct competitor to Amazon. The key advantage, of course, is that it enables sellers with brick-and-mortar locations to drive foot traffic to local stores. So, whereas Amazon is a fantastic way to sell products online, Google Shopping is a fantastic way to sell both online and offline.

2. Browse personalized recommendations

After our runner friend (let’s call him Ron) has made a few more purchases—a couple pairs of shorts and a water bottle, let’s say—he’ll notice something new about the Shopping homepage: It’s personalized with recommendations based on his past searches and purchases. From here, Ron can browse all kinds of relevant items and start thinking about what he wants to buy next.

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This is a particularly strong feature, in my opinion, not only because it borrows directly from the Amazon homepage, but also because it taps into the logic at the heart of another rapidly emerging ecommerce platform: Instagram. Instagram’s successful transition from a fun social media network to an honest-to-goodness ecommerce platform is due, in large part, to the personalized nature of the browsing experience. Because users have full control over which brands they follow on Instagram, they’re able to curate their own digital shopping experiences.

By using machine learning to personalize users’ Shopping homepages, Google is effectively replicating the Instagram experience. In fact, they’re improving the Instagram experience. Google can use the data it collects not only to show users the brands and products they want to see, but also to predict the brands and products users may want to see. We’re no longer talking about a channel designed to simply capture commercial intent; we’re talking about a channel designed to inspire commercial intent.

3. Shop wherever you please

Despite the seamlessness and comprehensiveness of the new Shopping interface, you can’t expect your prospects to use it whenever they feel inspired to make a purchase. No matter how badly someone wants or needs your product, the fact of the matter is that it takes effort to open up Google Shopping, apply the necessary filters, and buy something.

That conversion-killing friction is precisely why the new Shopping experience will extend beyond the Shopping interface itself and into the realms of Images and YouTube. At the time of this writing, certain search queries are triggering shoppable results under the Google Images tab. Starting July 15, users will see shoppable results on YouTube as well.

google-vs-amazon-shoppable-image-results

The reasoning behind this extension of Google Shopping into new properties is simple. Across devices and platforms, consumers make tons of touchpoints with their favorite brands every day. Although different consumers are at different points in their respective customer journeys, each of those touchpoints—in theory—is an opportunity for you to make a sale. By eliminating the need for in-market consumers to actively search for your products, the new (and broader) Shopping experience enables you to turn those opportunities into revenue.

As an example, let’s say you’re advertising athletic t-shirts and Ron the runner is one of your prospects. Previously, you’ve served him ads as he scrolls through YouTube videos related to running. Although he’s been enticed by your products, he hasn’t bothered to search for your brand on Google. In just a few weeks, he’ll no longer have to. Thanks to shoppable YouTube ads, going from inspiration to purchase will barely require lifting a finger.

In a nutshell: Whereas Amazon advertisers can only reach consumers on Amazon, Google Shopping advertisers can reach consumers across relevant Google properties.

How to get in on the action

If you’re as excited as I am about the new Shopping experience and you want to take advantage of all the opportunities it has to offer, you’ll have to join Google’s Shopping Actions program. Available only to sellers in the US and France, Shopping Actions is essentially a tool that enables you to connect with and sell to consumers across Google’s properties.

To join the Shopping Actions program in the US, you need to be a Shopping advertiser with systems for fulfillment, returns, and customer support already in place. Get started here.

Change #2: The expansion of showcase shopping ads

As I mentioned when discussing the personalized Shopping homepage, Google doesn’t want to simply create another marketplace that consumers visit when they already know which products they want to buy (cough, cough, Amazon, cough, cough). To borrow the words of Search Engine Land’s Ginny Marvin, Google wants to “own the whole funnel”—and that means inspiring consumers with relevant content when they’re in the mood for discovery.

google-vs-amazon-showcase-shopping-ad-lulus-example

That was the motivation behind the introduction of showcase shopping ads back in 2017. The idea was straightforward enough: When a user does a broad product search, invite them to browse a collection of relevant offerings. Effectively, the showcase shopping ad type has been a way to assist consumers who turn to Google Search to discover new products.

But regular ol’ Search isn’t the only way people discover new products, is it? Nope. Google Images, for example, is an awesome way to find new ideas for fashion, beauty, and lifestyle purchases (which is why, as mentioned before, shoppable images results are now live). Elsewhere, users turn to Google Discover (long live the news feed) when they need to catch up on the stuff they care about—thus giving you, as an advertiser, a golden opportunity to introduce them to your business. And then, of course, there’s YouTube—arguably Google’s greatest asset. Two-thirds of users have watched a video to help them make a purchase decision. Of those users, 80% say they watched that video at the beginning of their customer journey. Translation: YouTube is a phenomenal place to help consumers discover new products.

google-vs-amazon-images-and-discover-placements

Given alllll of that, it was only a matter of time until Google expanded showcase shopping ads beyond Search and into the other properties people turn to for discovery. Once these additional placements are fully rolled out, you’ll be able to bring consumers to the top of your marketing funnel no matter where they are.

How to get in on the action

The only requirements for running showcase shopping ads are (1) that you’re a Shopping advertiser and (2) that you have an active Shopping campaign. If you check both of those boxes, here’s what you’ll have to do.

Open up your Google Ads account and select Ad groups from the left-hand menu. Click the blue plus button and then Select a campaign. Once you’ve found the Shopping campaign you want your showcase shopping ad to live in, select Create ad group. When you’re prompted to select an ad group type, pick Showcase Shopping. From there, you’ll need to name your ad group and set a bid. Keep in mind that the bid you’re setting is on a cost-per-engagement basis (CPE). This means that you’ll pay every time someone expands your ad and spends at least 10 seconds browsing or whenever someone clicks a link within your ad.

Once you’ve named your ad group, set a bid, and selected the products you’d like to display, it’s time to create your ad! All this requires is a header image (which will appear at the top of your ad when a user expands it) and a couple items of ad copy. Make sure everything looks good in the preview window, click Save and continue, and you’re ready to go!

Google vs. Amazon: Why the new Google Shopping matters

Amazon dominates ecommerce. There’s no getting around that. Although it’s as much a cloud computing company as anything else, the terms “Amazon” and “online shopping” have become virtually one in the same. Google is the gatekeeper to everything online—except products.

The company can’t do much about consumers’ increasing preference for beginning their product searches on Amazon. What it can do is worry less about connecting advertisers to consumers when they’re actively searching for products and focus more on turning key touchpoints into opportunities for both discovery (top of funnel) and sales (bottom of funnel).

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You’ll notice that creating a one-stop marketplace (read: Amazon) is only a single aspect of the new Google Shopping experience. While the personalized homepage serves as a data-driven hub for introducing users to relevant brands and products, the shoppable placements on Images and YouTube serve as friction-reducing tools for turning prospects into customers. Plus, with the expansion of showcase shopping ads to those same platforms as well as Google Discover, advertisers can fill their funnels and drive conversions all in the same place.

So—why does this matter to you, the ecommerce advertiser? Because your prospective customers are everywhere. They’re consulting Google Images for new ideas. They’re scrolling through Google Discover to find engaging, relevant content. They’re watching YouTube videos to find out what other people think about the products they might buy. As loyalty to particular businesses becomes, frankly, a thing of the past, initiating impactful touchpoints at meaningful moments makes all the difference.

Amazon boasts two crucial strengths: a huge user base and high commercial intent. Though Google Shopping has a smaller user base (for now), it’s certainly not lacking in commercial intent. And now, with the reimagination unveiled at Google Marketing Live, Google Shopping will give ecommerce advertisers the marketing tools they need to supplement that low-funnel magic with tons of high- and mid-funnel potential.

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Conor Bond

Conor Bond writes words about stuff on the WordStream blog. He likes to drink coffee, play basketball, and pretend he doesn't care about his inadequate facial hair.

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