From Answers to Actions: Google’s Next Steps to Empower Retailers with Voice

March 22, 2018

In November of last year, we suspected that we’d be hearing more from Google about its marketplace play, Google Express. Between the Holiday and the start of the New Year, we saw the industry express more intrigue, with a new Express ad unit showing prominently in the mobile search results, and increasing buzz around Voice- activated search and shopping with major retailers, Target and Walmart onboard. We also suspected that the Express initiative would move swiftly to the top of Google’s priorities, fueled by the continuing pressures from Amazon, which has not only taken a significant portion of product search share from Google, but has also been disrupting retail left and right. It was just earlier this week that an attendee at the 2018 Shoptalk Conference noted, “Amazon is in the subtext of everything. All you hear is Amazon, Amazon, Amazon. Isn’t there anything else to talk about?”

Google gave us something to talk about, when it announced the availability of the Shopping Actions program. It’s been running in live beta with retailers on the Google Express platform up until this point, and has demonstrated very positive results according to some of those retailers. What Shopping Actions ultimately enables is a seamless shopping and transaction experience across devices – from your Google Home device, to your mobile Assistant, to Search – where items can be gathered to a single cart and checkout process via Express. 

It’s all about Voice

Shopping Actions is very clearly aligned with Google’s efforts to be everywhere your customers are, focusing on the key micro-moments and intent signals that allow brands to be both relevant and present when consumers are ready to act, on any device. But beyond the seamlessness of cross-device transactions, the real significance of this announcement is Voice. According to internal research shared by Google, 44% of consumers who use their voice-activated speaker at least weekly say they use the device to order household goods and groceries.

As using voice-activated devices becomes more intuitive for consumers, retailers need to be ahead of the behavior – whether that be through building internal capabilities or forming partnerships with those that are sophisticated enough to lead in voice – Google most certainly is. Target and Walmart, both without voice-commerce chops of their own, saw the opportunity to partner with Google as way to form a competitive alliance against the growing reign of Amazon (and Alexa, which has claimed the majority of market share in smart speakers for now). Now with nearly 50 retailers operating on Google Express – from Ulta Beauty to PetSmart to the Vitamin Shoppe – the wider availability of Shopping Actions could entice others to get onboard.

Staying Connected with the Customer

While retailers on Google Express, and now through Shopping Actions, will be competing for voice share (Google considers the query + local availability + price + popularity to surface products on Express), the added integration of existing loyalty programs, like Ulta Beauty’s Ultamate Rewards program and Target’s REDcard, allow retailers to maintain, and in many cases, elevate the level of personalization and connection they have with their customers. This is a major difference from Amazon, where loyalty and brand-building possibilities for the retailers themselves is fairly limited at this point.

A few similarities to Amazon exist in Google’s Shopping Actions program, and in Google Express more broadly. For instance, Shopping Actions will use a pay-per-sale model (% of the product sale), which falls outside the cost-per-click that’s typical of Google’s revenue model. Google hasn’t publicly released that percentage yet, or whether it will vary, but we imagine it will likely be competitive with Amazon. Additionally, if you look deeper into the Google Merchant Center information, it’s noted that by being a part of Google Express, retailers gain access to Google-managed customer support, which includes communications around order-related issues, and returns facilitated by Google. Though not as comprehensive an offering, yet, it sounds like Google is trying to give retailers a similar experience to first-party relationships on Amazon.

Where will Google Express go in the future?

There are still some unanswered questions from our November post, like: Will there ever be a separate Google Express tab or dedicated space within the SERP? How is Google potentially competing with other advertisers for paid real estate? We know that Shopping Actions won’t impact organic listings, as Google mentioned, but brands will want to gain further insight into the role the new program plays in their broader Search program. Finally, what competitive insights will be available to see how retailers’ products are fairing against others on Google Express? We imagine Google is thinking about all of these things as it gets more brands on board through the program.

One of the bigger questions we have, is whether Shopping Actions ads will ultimately become the preferred paid voice result for product search – i.e. participating in the program, and on Google Express, could become one of the only viable ways for retailers to seriously play in the paid Google Voice space. At this time, that only seems probable in a scenario where the user is searching for a specific brand and product, as demonstrated by Google’s image above.

For any clients interested in exploring Google Express and the Shopping Actions program, we’ll be acting as a guide through the process, and will keep our eye out for any subsequent details about the opportunity.

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