What would Google do just to siphon some product search volume away from its retail rival? How far would it go? What tactics would it resort to? With Amazon under no real threat of having its kingdom toppled, Google has taken dramatic action to make sure it expands its piece of the retail pie. What might surprise you is how Google’s going about cutting itself a larger slice, right under your nose.
Google’s Current Product Search Position
I’ve done it, you’ve done, he’s done it, she’s done it… we’ve all done it…. went straight to Amazon and didn’t even think of searching for a product on Google. Heck, just last night (well not last night anymore because by the time I finish writing this, it’ll be at least a few days later) I opened a browser up with the intention of buying a nifty pocket watch for my dad. I didn’t Google pocket watches for dad or any other query. I just went to Amazon. Why? Because it’s about a million times better than Google Shopping. There’s nothing wrong with saying that, everyone knows it, literally, everyone (especially Google).
Thus, me, you, he, she, they, we, (why do I feel like I’m in a Dr. Seuss book?) are the problem, at least from Google’s point of view (I’m also a problem from my mother’s point of view, but that’s for a different time and place). According to Business Insider, about 30% of American shoppers head right over to Amazon (and that number does not include other marketplaces like eBay, etc.). Just so you know, that’s about twice as many people who prefer to make Google their primary shopping home (and again, that’s only in relation to Amazon, forget Overstock, and whatnot). Thus, when it comes to product searches, Google does not pass “Go,” it does not collect $200, it’s pretty much stuck with Baltic Avenue. (OK, I’m done referencing Monopoly for the time being.)
Google has a problem, and in typical Google fashion it has decided to deal with this problem via careful introspection, a bit of psychoanalysis, and a stiff drink. No, not all. Google is dealing with this by furthering its control over its own property, the SERP, as it has often done in the past (not a critique, just a reality, I’ll leave the yelling and screaming to you). In this case, it completely reversed direction by going back on how it was previously dealing with the Knowledge Panel, specifically in balancing organic representation with the real estate heavy panel on mobile.
A Guided Tour of Google’s Product Knowledge Panel
Before we get into what Google upgrading its product based Knowledge Panel really means and says about the state of Google’s retail ambitions, let’s first see what punch she packs. The newly upgraded Product Knowledge Panel incorporates a ton of content via a format that is conducive for a deep look at a given product. The panel is broken down into various tabs (like Google’s Movie Knowledge Panels) that segments product details, reviews, etc., thereby providing a very thorough look at a product.
Rather than describe every aspect of the panel in intriguingly great detail, I’ll just show you what you can expect when searching for a product on the mobile SERP. Let’s take a tour through Google’s own Google Home via the upgraded mobile panel.
First up, and without clicking/tapping anything, Google presents an overview that includes the new Editorial Reviews carousel:
Now, I’m not going to show you what the expansion of the panel brings up, it’s a surprise that I’ll get to in a bit.
Moving to the right, we arrive at the Stores tab where you’ll see those sites that have paid Google to have the featured product presented in Google Shopping:
Next, Google offers an entire tab dedicated to product specifications (which is actually just awesome):
Lastly (at least in this case), Google presents an expanded look at product reviews in the ever-appropriately titled Reviews tab:
Fantastically comprehensive content aside, the panel’s product dominance is really in its size. Here’s the full SERP (up until the related searches) for the keyword iphone x (Warning: Get your scroll finger ready):
By time you scroll past the Product Knowledge Panel, the ads that follow it, as well as the second panel, besides for having carpal tunnel syndrome, do you even care or need the organic results? Now consider the implications if these organic results happen to belong to a certain retail site that offers quick and easy shipping?
Bypassing Organic Results Altogether
Possibly more meaningful than anything else, the Product Panel makes easy to bypass the organic results altogether. If you expand the panel via the button at its bottom, you enter full-on Google-land where organic results no longer exist. Remember when I said I wanted to save the expanded panel as a surprise? Well, here’s what you get when you go about expanding the panel:
Surprise! All that was added to the Overview section upon the panel being expanded is the People Also Search For carousel. Essentially, expanding the panel pulls the aforementioned carousel up from the bottom of the SERP and removed any trace of the organic results.
Sure, the very bottom says See web results. However, after having already presented the user with everything they could ever want to know about a product, it’s like telling a 7 year-old to look down at their dinner-plate and see brussels sprouts.
The result is an all-inclusive, completely comprehensive product knowledge center that is quite enticing. Simply, why go anywhere but straight to Google to get the scoop on the latest and hottest products the market has to offer?
Why the New Product Knowledge Panel is Actually Unexpected – Enter Movie Panels
Wow, you would think a panel like this, with organic eliminating overlays, would cause controversy… and it has. Google’s Movie Panels have always functioned this way. As I’ve already discussed more than once, by using the “overlay system,” the Movie Knowledge Panel takes you to Google-land, enabling you to hop from one panel to the next endlessly without ever encountering an organic result, that is until recently. In September 2017, Google reformatted the Movie Panel to be more organically inclusive. After many in the industry (myself on many occasions) had taken note of how the mobile Knowledge Panel is an organic result hazard, Google changed its SERP feature domineering ways. (Or has it? Read on.)
The updated Movie Panel that infuses organic results within panel elements
What changed? Well, for starters, the Movie Panel got more tabs to further segment its content. Part of this restructuring meant that Google did away with the expanded panel altogether. That is, you can no longer expand a Movie Panel so that it overlays the page and takes you off to Google-land. If you want to see the additional content that used to appear upon expansion, you have to go to another tab (US panels only as of the writing of this article).
Mobile Movie Knowledge Panels – More about Optics than Organic
As part of understanding the urgency of Google’s product search volume quest, I need to show you why the organically inclusive Movie Panel is not entirely what it seems. In doing so, I’ll later highlight the power position Google is working out of (or lack of such a position) by not using the same techniques they employ in Movie Panels.
The Movie Knowledge Panel – The Pertinence of Its Organic Results
Outwardly, it would appear that with the new Movie Panel format, Google is withdrawing from the SERP and allowing more organic results to have their day in the sun. I want to point out why this is not so. Sure, organic results are no longer eliminated when the panel is expanded, because the panel no longer expands. Sure, organic results are shown more prominently, closer to the top of the SERP. But as much as Google wants you to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” (Wizard of Oz), you should.
Let’s take a look at the new Movie Panel format. Now, know that each of the tabs, i.e., Cast, Watch Movie, etc., includes elements of the Knowledge Panel, as well as organic results. However, the initial Overview tab contains almost all of the information you can see in the subsequent tabs. Let’s then have a look at the new Movie Panel.
With the new format, we’re first presented with a trailer along with an image (this specific layout can vary from movie to movie). Next we’re shown reviews from IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, and you, the Google user:
Once the section is slightly expanded, the Movie Knowledge Panel presents us with a link-filled summary of the movie and the awards it has won, which is followed by a carousel of the cast members. Know this, the links you see within the description do not go to actual sites, such as Wikipedia, but to other Knowledge Panels:
Now we get to our first look at organic results. Though, you’ll notice the heading for the Knowledge Panel remains the whole time:
Look carefully at the results. You’ll notice the first result is from IMDb and looks to be a page that gives us an overview of the movie, which we already have seen via the Knowledge Panel itself. Oh, but wait, the IMDb result includes a rating for the film! Ah, wait, wait, we already saw that in the panel itself as well. So I guess the Wikipedia result is pretty much irrelevant to us at this point as well. At least Google linked to the site earlier in its own summary of the flick. Oh wait, no it didn’t, Google linked to other Knowledge Panels.
Also notice the heading, Top results. Why is there a heading here? In other tabs Google has no heading for the results that mix within the panel elements? I very much speculate that these results were specifically shown here and are not the natural result of Google’s organic algorithm. Meaning, if there was no panel here, these results may, or may not have been, the 1st and 2nd results on the SERP.
Moving down the “SERP,” we get a list of places where we can watch this movie, with the first two sources being YouTube and Google Play, along with a series of critic reviews:
After a video carousel of YouTube videos, we get some more organic results:
Now, if you’ve even made it this far, without moving to another tab, you get a result to the book the movie is based on (which is the only result here that makes any sense). Then you get a link to Netflix. However, Google already told you where to watch this earlier, and Netflix was not included.
The next link would be highly relevant, if Google didn’t already show you the Rotten Tomatoes score way earlier. Of course, you could also decide to click on a bunch of a links to articles that are already two years old and the movie’s Facebook page, right? Right?…. Right?
The other tabs follow a similar pattern…. Google gives you the information that the organic links would otherwise provide had it not already done so.
What’s Google doing here? Giving you organic results or throwing in some blue links for the purpose of the optics but that serve no real purpose since Google already gave you most of the information the links would offer?
What This Means for Google’s Product Search & Panel
Be the above as it may, structurally speaking, you can no longer fall down the rabbit-hole and into Google-land with the Movie Panels on mobile. Which stands in strong contradistinction to the upgraded Product Panels. Here, Google has specifically designed the panels with the tab format, but has also left that portal into the Google-verse open via the expansion button and the very tabs themselves (which don’t include any organic results, unlike in the Movie Panel).
This begs the question, why didn’t Google go about this elaborate organic results arrangement within the Product Knowledge Panel? Why not get the benefit of the optics here? Why not interject organic results within the Product Panel schematic? Why use the controversial full screen overlay system when as I’ve shown above you can do the same exact thing without it?! Why didn’t Google have its cake and eat it too by showing you organic results within the Product Panel that are all but made irrelevant by the panel’s own content?
How Google’s Upgraded Product Panel Underscores Its Product Search Ambitions
Google could have created a new Product Knowledge Panel that didn’t eliminate organic results when engaged with fully. It could have designed its Product Panel to mimic the functionality of the newly formatted Movie Panel without much risk to losing out on product search volume. But Google didn’t do that. Instead, Google made use of a controversial tactic that throws users into a vacuum of Google pages. Why?
It’s Not Just About Offering Detailed Product Information
Google didn’t merely upgrade its Product Panel to provide users with so much product information that we’ll all forget about Amazon and head over to the search box. That’s definitely a part of it, and it’s most certainly explains why Google has packed the panel with so much information, etc. But that’s only the half of it.
Google is banking on us seeking out the panel for the information it contains, but it’s not leaving our behavior once there to chance. Google has reverted back to the functionality used in the previous version of the Movie Panel to ensure that we, the users, navigate the product research journey in a controlled environment. Google needs the volume if it wants people to see the paid promotions of one of its Shop On Google partners. What better way than to offer a fantastic place to research a product that easily morphs into a self-contained environment? (And even when it does share the SERP with organic results, it’s so large that it takes a great deal of scrolling to even reach the blue links. So good luck to Amazon when it happens to rank organically.)
Google has grandiose product search ambitions. The search engine that dominates everything from paid to organic search traffic, is not in the power position here and it doesn’t like the feeling. While Google may be OK with “losing a user” to IMDb here and there via its Movie Panels, it is not taking the same risk here with the Product Panel on mobile. Unlike the Movie Panel, Google has serious product search competition, and in many ways is being trounced by Amazon who is responsible for a whopping 43% of all retail sales made online.
Reverting back to using a more “forceful” user experience stems not only from Google’s product search ambitions, but insecurities. Google knows it has an uphill battle to fight and it not willing to risk losing out on a user interacting with its Shop On Google sponsors by offering a “softer sale” the way it does in the Movie Panel.
Google wants us to come to the SERP for product searches and it’s not about to have us bypass its paid shopping sponsors by having us distracted with organic blue links, no matter how low the chance of engaging with the organic results may be. With a panel that is so space consuming unexpanded (and one that is followed by ads), Google is looking for a controlled user-experience where it can strongly direct the user down a well-throughout path. Google’s ambitions may start with product search volume, but they culminate in Shop On Google conversions.
If You Takeaway One Thing… Google is Playing for Keeps
The difference in the Product Panel’s functionality, as compared with that of the recently reformatted Movie Panel, highlights not only Google’s market leverage (of lack thereof), but its ambitious intent. By in a way restricting the user’s freedom of movement, and considering Google has recently abandoned such practices, the search engine is sending a strong message as to just how serious it is about moving in on Amazon’s product search market-share and beyond. It is no small thing to see Google reengage in a practice that it knows is controversial within the retail context, which only exasperates the issue (as the involvement of money always does). But in this war, Google is not willing to take any chances. It is apparent, as evidenced by the mobile Product Panel’s functionality (as well as its size), that Google is unwilling to lose out to Amazon any longer, no matter what the public relations cost.
The Fundamental Flaw in Google’s Product Panel
Do a Google search for pants on mobile, you won’t find a Product Panel (though after an October 2017 spike in Knowledge Panels, you’ll now get a panel with some images of pants and a Wikipedia description of what pants are, in case you were confused about what to do with the two legged coverings). The full-fledged Product Panel only appears for specific items, like an iPhone X. Now think about the last time you bought your cousin’s pet ferret a gift, did you search for a specific item and/or model, or did you run a search (most likely on Amazon) for ferret sweaters (which do actually exist). Sure, for highly sought after items, Google’s Product Panel could work, but when you want to buy Aunt Millie a new cookbook how likely are you to search for a specific title? And this is the fundamental shortcoming with Google’s panel-centered product search strategy.
Amazon is great because when you throw a term like orange socks with pink polka dots at it, you get a variety of results back. Vis a vis its Product Panel, Google is counting on you knowing exactly what you want when you execute a product search, which is not how this works. Meaning, Product Panels are about as effective in solving Google’s product search volume problems as a band-aid is at stopping your aorta from hemorrhaging.
To effectively combat Amazon, or to at least level this very uneven playing field, Google would need its own shopping site. Obviously, a carousel of products that appear on the top of a page designed for something else entirely (i.e, the SERP) is not working for Google. Oh wait, Google does have a site, google.com/shopping. Go out and ask the average person what Google’s shopping site is. Now replicate this 99 more times. The results of this hypothetical survey should show you how far Google is from actually competing with Amazon.
In other words, Google is using the wrong tool for the job. Google does have an alternative to Amazon, and you don’t have to know the URL, you just need to search for a generic retail query, peruse through the products Google offers you, and click to see more results, but obviously this is not happening and it’s not happening because people aren’t going to Google and entering these queries to begin with. As I mentioned before, the data shows people bypass Google and head over to Amazon. So now Google has this really prolific panel for specific products and is hoping you’ll come over to the search box with the very conscious intention of bringing it up on the SERP. Except, queries for a specific product have nothing to do with the actual problem. Hence, a band-aid for a hemorrhage.
Highway to the Danger Zone
Google’s aggressive campaign to move in on Amazon’s product search market is dangerous, both to Amazon and to itself. That Google is so willing to take such a hard-line stance is nothing to sneeze at. If I were Amazon I would monitor things very closely. One should not underestimate Google, not matter how unsound the strategy is (in my opinion, of course). On the other hand, Google is taking a big risk. Users are not dumb. They will notice the mobility confinement that is the Product Panel, and could begin to feel negatively towards Google vis a vis online retail. It’s the same reason that online retail conversion still belongs to desktop. When spending hard earned money, we’d rather use a platform that more easily allows for maneuverability, so as to make sure we’re making the right decision and haven’t missed anything simply because we didn’t see it.
There’s another way this can backfire. Yes, the panel’s functionality has a way of “sucking you in” and placing you in an exclusively Google environment. However, the panel, even unexpanded, and without rushing you off into Google-land, may be too long for users, at least at this stage of the game. As things stand now, users still expect to see organic results. They may even be looking for that diversity specifically. Having to scroll endlessly past the panel, and then past ads, and another panel, etc. could be a major turnoff when users expect diverse & comparative information.
This is all a big risk for something that doesn’t deal with Google’s fundamental product search inadequacies, which this author thinks are impossible to overcome. Amazon is not just the platform of choice, it’s our entire association to online shopping. Google should not underestimate that psychological association, even if there is no verb for searching on Amazon the way there is for Google.