The first-ever online shopping transaction was completed back in 1994, when the commercial potential of a networked system like the Internet was only just being discovered. One year later saw the launch of Amazon (selling books online) and eBay (online second-hand sales). The idea of buying products over the Internet seemed like science fiction at the time, and excited consumers gravitated towards the convenience of it all. Google, the world’s leading search engine, launched in 1998 and gave Internet users access to pre-purchase information, from thousands of online sources, via a quick web search. The next step was to link searchers directly to products from a search results page, which gave rise to the need for e-commerce-capable websites where transactions could take place. Today, Google Ads (formerly AdWords) is the gold standard for online advertising. Google’s advertising revenue in Q3:2019 was a staggering $33.9 billion, with retailers across the globe realising the potential of search engine advertising and e-commerce. So, what did the first iteration of Google Shopping look like, how did it evolve, and what capabilities did it offer advertisers?
2002: Google launches “Froogle”
Combining the words ‘Google’ and ‘Frugal’, the first Google shopping experience appeared very similar to the Google we know today. It had a search bar, where online shoppers could type keywords and search for the products and services. Browsers could navigate directly to a seller’s website and learn more. Instead of showing text-only search results, Froogle would serve product snippets complete with image, description, price, star reviews and a link to the retailer’s online catalogue. The best part of Froogle? Listing your products and services was completely free. However, there were limitations. Vendors had to be charging US dollars for items, and they had to be residing in the United States of America.
2007: Google product search
The biggest problem with Froogle was that nobody knew, from first glance, that it was a product and shopping search platform. The search engine added a link to Froogle on its home page in 2004, but removed it in 2006 after receiving low click-through rates. By changing the name to Google Product Search, Google made sure that Internet users knew instantly what to expect. The search area was streamlined on the shopping search engine, and shopping ads would start appearing alongside text search results on the Google home page. In 2008 Google branched out of the US with its online shopping ads, running trials in Germany and the UK. Today, Google shopping is available in 121 countries.
2012: Google Shopping
With its rapid expanse outside its home country, Google again reinvented the online shopping portal in 2012, changing the name to Google Shopping. The search engine also implemented a paid inclusion model, announcing that the Product Search Listings would be replaced by Paid Listings based on Google Product Listing Ads. In other words, vendors would have to bid against each other and pay Google for their shopping ads to show up on the search engine results pages (SERP). With the massive retail benefits of advertising on Google, this evolution into a pay-to-play structure was inevitable.
2020 and beyond
The Google Shopping experience has transformed remarkably since Froogle came about in 2002, and modern technologies like artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things are revolutionising the way we shop. Google changed the online shopping game once again in 2019, revealing four new features to its Google Shopping interface and algorithm:
• Shoppable Google Images Google Shopping has incorporated promotional elements to images, allowing advertisers to tag multiple items within one picture. This has potential, since 40% of shopping-related queries on Google are broad-based, general product category searches. • Showcase Shopping Ads Google’s Showcase Shopping Ads are by no means new, but the introduction of shoppable images has amplified their conversion potential. Currently available in 20 countries (including South Africa), Showcase Ads feature visual content to introduce a brand, with direct links to transaction points. • Smart Shopping Campaigns Machine learning technology has enabled the introduction of Smart Shopping Campaigns, which can adjust and optimise themselves to achieve performance goals. In other words, the Google algorithm assesses an advert and decides on the best locations to feature it (whether on Google, Google Images, Websites, or YouTube). • Shopping Actions This new feature of Google Shopping, first tested in March of 2019, allows shoppers access to a brand’s products across multiple Google surfaces, using a universal cart to check out instantly (Google Pay). This is Google’s way of facilitating more convenient, frictionless online shopping experiences. Although many players have entered the online revolution successfully, Google has managed to stay on top of its game, 22 years down the line. A testimony that regular innovation of a business model is crucial, if you want to stay ahead of the competition.