It’s not easy to capture the magic of window shopping online, but plenty of tech and e-commerce companies consider the effort a top priority. Among them is Google, which revealed new updates for search on Wednesday to inject more product discovery directly into search and make results more shoppable.
The tech company redesigned results for product searches to create a more visual experience that, it hopes, will inspire shoppers. Instead of searching a keyword and seeing a long list of blue links, a user searching for, say, a shirt will see product information, reviews, styling guides, videos and more as provided by retailers, as well as from Google’s free listings.
The objective was to craft an experience that makes it easier for consumers to window shop for their favorite brands and come across new ones. Eventually it will cover multiple categories and sectors, but for now, Google is kicking it off with apparel, accessories and footwear.
“For example, if you search for men’s sweatshirts, you’ll see a visual feed of sweatshirts in various colors and styles alongside blogs, deals and YouTube [and other] videos. And then when you find something you like, you’re able to click to check out more reviews and ratings and then even compare prices to make sure that you’re getting the best deal,” Matt Madrigal, vice president of merchant shopping, told WWD.
“It’s a broad category that we see a lot of really great user demand for across Google surfaces, so that’s where we’re starting. And it really lends itself to some of the exploration and inspiration in shopping journeys that we see.”
The deals aspect could make it very popular. According to Google, searches for “discount code” have spiked since last year, increasing 50 percent.
Notably, the feature isn’t landing in the dedicated Google Shopping section, but within the main search engine. That alone may drastically raise product visibility, as well as the profile of participating stores and brands.
The move looks like a direct aim at Amazon. The e-tail giant has been steadily eroding Google’s search dominance, at least for product searches, and it now leads by a wide margin. A study released this spring from Amazon sales platform Jungle Scout revealed that a whopping 74 percent of U.S. consumers kick off their hunt for products on the e-commerce site.
So for Google, hiding this window shopping update inside Google Shopping may not have made much sense. And since shopping on smartphones is booming — eMarketer data pegs 2020 growth in U.S. mobile commerce at 41.4 percent, with 2021 adding another 15.2 percent this year, hitting $359.32 billion — the experience will arrive on mobile before eventually rolling out to desktops.
While it encourages browsing and exploring, the search giant naturally wants to boost actual buying as well. People can shop, based on the search results, of course. But there’s also a new expansion for its Lens feature to drive searches and sales.
The computer vision technology, which can read and understand images taken from phone cameras, allows users to scan real-world objects and unearth information. It was once relegated to things like identifying flowers or triggering foreign language translation, but it’s evolved to handle product searches, even from stored photos and screen shots within Google Photos.
A popular feature already in use more than 3 billion times monthly, according to Google, Lens allows users to scan a friend’s shoes, for example, and automatically see that style online or similar ones.
Lens works via the Google app on iOS and Android, plus Google Photos on Android, and it’s extending to desktop Chrome as well. With that, people can select images, video and text on a webpage to set off a Lens search in the same tab. What this does, in effect, is make everything online — from websites to streaming video — shoppable.
“[If] you use Lens while you’re streaming a show on your computer, it may pull up information about the products in that scene, or the actors and actresses,” said Madrigal. On mobile, users can just tap various items in an image, and the product details and similar items will immediately appear.
Lest anyone think Google is singularly obsessed with e-commerce, the company also offered an update for brick-and-mortar shoppers. With a new in-stock filter, consumers can see product availability in their local stores before heading out. The filter ties into retailers’ inventory systems in real time.
“[A] phenomenon that really took off during the pandemic was the digitization of the in-store experience,” Madrigal continued. “Last year, we all have grown pretty used to services like buy online, pick up in store or curbside pickup. And along those lines, shoppers would like to know whether things are available that they want … What we’ve seen is searches for ‘available near me’ have grown globally by over 100 percent in the past year — and with the holidays ahead, we predict this trend will continue.”
The foundation of these and other commerce initiatives from Google is its AI-driven shopping graph, what the company describes as the “most comprehensive, real-time dataset about products, inventory and merchants.” The shopping graph swells with 24 billion product listings, and it’s driving the new features, which in turn flows information back to the graph, creating a data cycle of sorts. Think of it as a matrix of data that becomes more intelligent over time.
This type of model makes it crucial for Google to pull in as many stores and brands as possible.
Retail has become a major priority for the company. Google sees it as a “substantial growth driver,” according to Madrigal, so it’s doing more for this category than ever.
This shift in strategy has spawned numerous efforts, including free listings and partnerships with Shopify and other commerce platforms. The efforts have fueled 80 percent growth in Google’s merchant community last year, with a disproportionate amount coming from smaller and medium-sized businesses. Google also saw a 70 percent increase in the size of its product catalogue.
The sheer size of its retail focus may simply be too big for it to squeeze inside the existing Google Shopping sub-section of the site.
Madrigal explained, “More than 1 billion shopping sessions happen across Google surfaces every day and each surface has a role to play.” It’s not just in one Google product, but everywhere the company has a stake, including Search, Maps and YouTube, which features tech like augmented reality for virtual makeup try-ons.
“We are on a multiyear journey to reimagine Shopping on Google and will continue to build, refine and optimize experiences to make Google the best place to shop,” he said.
How it gets there is, ultimately, about not getting in the middle of or in the way of the shopping journey, and facilitating a direct connection between merchants and consumers.
“We want to be able to help users where they are, when they are, when they are initiating their shopping journeys,” he added. “And search is a big part of that.”