Is it really free to sell on Google?

Last month, Bill Ready, President of Commerce at Google, announced that ‘It’s now free to sell on Google’. So is Google Shopping now free?! Um, no. Not completely. Here’s what the recent announcement means for retailers. (Editors note: This post was originally posted on 6 May 2020, and has been updated on 2 October 2020 to include updated information on Google Shopping.)

Up until recently, paid Shopping listings have been available to serve on the main Google SERP, and on the Google Shopping tab. In May 2019, Google announced that feeds uploaded to Google Merchant Centre (GMC) would also be eligible to display in results on “surfaces”, which include Google Search, Google Shopping, and Google Images, as well as image search app Google Lens. Now, Google have extended this further and announced that unpaid product listings will be able to be shown on the Google Shopping tab alone, almost in an extension to the existing Surfaces program.

Think of the Google Shopping tab as a comparison shopping service, just like Croud Commerce. Google are opening up their Shopping tab to a wider range of merchants, in order to allow shoppers to benefit from the varied, relevant listings that match  their queries – ergo, better user experience.

Where will you see these unpaid shopping listings?

The main SERP,  where a Google Search automatically takes you, will remain unchanged. The Shopping results listed above all other paid and unpaid listings will remain as paid Shopping ads, denoted by the “Sponsored” label in the top right-hand corner:

Google search for 'birthday presents for her'

At the moment, you may see an option in GMC to opt into surfaces across Google. Unless you’re in the US, this doesn’t mean you’ve snuck around the rollout date and have got an early birthday present – it means you’re opting into your paid ads being shown across those “surfaces”. So, what we could see in a UK Google Images SERP might look similar to the below, with paid ads, again indicated by the “Sponsored” label, showing above the Google Image results within the Google Images tab:

Google images search for 'birthday presents for her'

In the US, and for other countries after the rollout of unpaid shopping listings, if you have opted into surfaces across Google, it will also start showing unpaid shopping ads underneath the paid ones – on the Google Shopping tab:

Shopping search for 'tshirt yellow medium'

Do people click on the Shopping tab?

Google does not share information on the share of traffic between their “surfaces”, so it’s near-impossible for us to quantify how many users click on the tab, and as such how much visibility you’re likely to get from this change. However, for some of our clients in the US, we’re already starting to see a change in organic traffic, overnight – with up to a 20% increase in organic sessions since the change took place there, and no other changes made to the client’s site. So, though we don’t necessarily have a confirmed figure in mind, the change could bring about a fairly significant rise for SEO, if optimised correctly.

What will the impact be on paid inventory?

As we’ve mentioned, the main SERPs are unaffected by this change, meaning that a huge shift in paid shopping traffic is unlikely – and it certainly won’t vanish completely for now. The precise impact will differ from merchant to merchant – depending on the volume of users who click on the Shopping tab (which is also very likely to vary by vertical), as well as how well you’re already doing with Shopping activity. Ultimately, as with any new Google product, you won’t know the full effect of what it will do to your performance until you’ve tested it.

Most Google products that go to Alpha or Beta have their functionality tested in the US first – and this is no exception, with Google announcing plans to roll out to the rest of the world where Merchant Centre operates by the end of 2020. However, as with other Beta products, if these tests do not go to plan (note: Google’s plan), they are either taken back to the drawing board or scrapped altogether. This means that there is no current launch date for any other country outside of the US – and also no guarantee that it ever will make it outside of America. So, though it’s good to be clued up and fully prepared, don’t count on it as an inevitable change just yet – and certainly not one that will knock paid Google Shopping off its perch.

Should I opt in? How do I opt in?

The idea of this launch is both to give the end user a better experience when looking for products with Google, and also for merchants to utilise Google as another route to market, without having to pay to be present. So, for most merchants, we can only see that opting in will be of overall benefit. Again without testing on a case-by-case basis it’s unlikely that we’ll know things like conversion rate on unpaid ads versus paid, the mix of audiences who go onto the Shopping tab, and many other variables – but until we do know that, it’s good to view the announcement as a way to further reach customers with your products, without having to invest more budget into paid ads.

As we’ve mentioned, opting into surfaces across Google is theoretically all you need to do to be able to serve unpaid product listings on the Google Shopping tab, if and when it makes it to your market.  However,  having the (correct) structured product markup is necessary for Google to be able to link up your product’s information to the user’s query. Product pages with structured product markup are more likely to surface in free result types across Google surfaces – this is part of Croud’s best practice SEO standards, but isn’t necessarily a given for all.

Do I need to optimise my current feed? How should I handle it?

As with all elements of search marketing, there are ways of optimising your activity to make the most of the feed you submit. There’s never been a better time to ensure your product feeds are fully optimised, as in the case of unpaid product listings, it’s all about relevancy – there’s no CPC bidding to fall back on, so we rely solely on the health of our feeds to boost visibility.

From a paid perspective, we recommend utilising every available attribute within your feed to ensure Google has as much information as possible on your products. Unpaid Shopping listings are no exception to this, but benefit particularly from having full information across these attributes:

Availability: It’s highly recommended that you add the availability [availability] attribute. If you don’t, your products may not appear in all search results on eligible surfaces across Google.

Canonical link: You can use the canonical_link [canonical_link] attribute to tell Google that you would prefer to use the canonical link for your product in the web search index instead of the value submitted for the link [link] attribute.

Delivery policies: You may want to add a link to your delivery policy to your surfaces across Google programme settings.

Finally, it’s important to note that this isn’t organic shopping listings, but unpaid shopping listings. As such, throw away all (ok not all, but most) of what you know about SEO rules. At Croud, we optimise items in the feed to ensure that, not only do products’ information accurately reflect their attributes, but that they also reflect the way in which users are searching for products; as ultimately that matching process starts with the query, which needs to be matched to a product. This appears to be the case for unpaid listings, too, and if anything it’s more important to ensure that listings are reflective of search terms, as it’s the only thing Google can use to match products to searches. As such, until we learn from doing, the same best practice feed optimisations we have for paid will serve unpaid listings just as well.

How do I track results?

Officially, there’s currently no way to be able to track the performance of unpaid shopping listings outside of their wider “organic” grouping. In May, we’ll see the roll-out of reporting through Google Merchant Centre, however this will just show unpaid clicks and will not necessarily have the same attribution as within other analytics platforms, to be able to deduce how many sales those unpaid clicks resulted in.

Google Merchant Centre - reporting for surfaces

We’re investigating the option to have a second, identical feed which is prioritised for surfaces across Google, with the original kept solely for paid listings; these feeds would then be tagged separately using parameters to ensure that performance metrics past the click are available in analytics platforms. Initial testing is currently underway on this and we hope to have an update before the end of May.

October 2020 Update:

Since April, we’ve had nearly a whole six months to process the shift seen in the US since Google Shopping listings became free on the Shopping tab. The rollout was slow and steady, with no seismic shifts in activity for those running both paid and “organic” shopping listings using Surfaces across Google. Performance across our US clients has varied, and even with the programme well and truly settled over there, we still see unpaid Shopping clicks accounting for 2-10% of total shopping clicks. 

Now, with the launch of unpaid Shopping listings set to hit Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) in mid-October, we’re expecting a similar trend of traffic – but all those feed optimisations are still as important as ever, especially given the ecommerce forecasts for a huge Q4 – powered by digital. The principles remain the same, with a few small hiccups on Google’s part for overseeing some Europe-specific Shopping nuances, but ultimately the same rules apply to both set up and optimisation. 

If you’d like to understand how this could impact you, and how best to prepare, please get in touch with our in-house ecommerce and feed specialists!

by Bethany Mercer
6 May 2020



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