October 1, 2014, 4:41 PM

Google throws up a new hurdle for retailers

When a shopper searches for certain retailers Google.com shows the retailer’s link, with a box for searching the retailer’s site. But retailers are not happy that the results of that search show competitors’ ads. There is a way around that, Google says.

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Jarred Goldberg, the senior director of marketing at e-retailer Revolve Clothing, stays on top of Google’s announcements and blogs, so he noticed when Google said it was rolling out to more sites its “search within a site” feature, which lets searchers search a retailer’s web site without leaving Google.com. At first, he wasn’t that worried about it.

But about a week ago, he began seeing the change.

A Google search for Revolve Clothing brings up a typical Google search results page, except that just underneath the link to Revolve’s home page and above links to other pages on Revolve’s site, there is a search box that shows within it the text, “Results from revolveclothing.com.” A consumer can then search for anything on the revolveclothing.com domain by typing in that search box.

That search produces another Google search results page with results from revolveclothing.com—plus something more: paid search ads for Revolve’s competitors “It’s definitely concerning to see some of our competitors come up in internal searches,” Goldberg says.

Goldberg is worried both about losing traffic to his site and about sending traffic to competitors. He says a quarter of Revolve’s traffic comes from organic search—about 90% of that from Google.

Goldberg says it’s too early to tell what effect the new feature will have. Revolve is running tests to see how often consumers use the “search within a site” box and how often searches within revolveclothing.com generate ads for its competition. “Anytime you take someone’s branded search and introduce the potential for the competition to take that share of voice, any brand out there is going to see some type of impact,” he says.

Mark Ballard, the director of research at Rimm Kaufman Group LLC, a search engine marketing firm, agrees that this hurts the retailer the consumer searched for. “You’d end up generating ads for your competition on a search that otherwise would have taken place on your site.” But Ballard doesn’t think the new feature will steal much traffic from retailer web sites. “In general, what we find with paid search is that users often click the very first thing they see,” he says, implying that consumers would click on the first hit on the search results page and only rarely use the “search within a site” feature.

The wider rollout of the “search within a site” feature is one more way Google is harnessing its captive audience to generate more advertising revenue, says Stephan Spencer, a search marketing expert and co-author of “The Art of SEO.”

Ballard says retailers were initially concerned that Google’s search might not be as effective as a brand's own site search implementation. Google as of Sept. 5 allowed for the use of a retailer’s own search results page, as long as it’s formatted correctly and submitted to Google. Google outlines the process for doing so on its developer blog. Amazon.com Inc., No. 1 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, and Walmart.com, No 4, are two retailers who have already taken advantage of that option. When someone searches within the “search Walmart.com” box on Google.com she is taken to a search results page on Walmart.com, not a Google.com page with ads from Wal-Mart’s rivals. Goldberg says Revolve might look into doing the same thing in the future.

A Google spokesman points to that option as a way around generating ads for a retailer’s competition. He says Google sent an e-mail blast to people with Google Webmaster Tools accounts a few weeks before the wider rollout occured to alert them to the change. Google says the search results pages generated by the search within a site searches are treating exactly like other Google search results pages, which means advertising shows up. The organic results on the search results page are all from that specific retailer, but the ads are from any company that has bought advertising.

Google says the search within a site feature is popular with searches, but would not disclose how often it's used. The spokesman says when searchers search for a company, such as Macy's, they often have a second query in mind. For smaller web sites, the search feature on the site is not always the best, and the search within a site feature on Google allows consumers to more easily find what they're looking for, he says.

Another feature aimed at keeping searchers on Google’s search results page debuted last week. The feature, which Google calls “Structured Snippets,” pulls information from web sites and displays that information below the search results on Google’s search results page. For example, a Google search for “Nikon D7100” displays such information as weight, screen size and sensor resolution below the search result for Digital Photography Review, a web site that reviews digital photography equipment.

Algorithms, powered by Google’s Knowledge Graph, uncover tables on web sites and extracts what it deems relevant information. The Knowledge Graph debuted two years ago, and is responsible for Rich Snippets, the encyclopedia-like information that occasionally appears to the right of search results on Google. For example, the query “Chicago” will pull up a photo, a summary and some key information about the city.

“Google is using artificial intelligence to answer more questions and handle more requests in a manner that is cutting out the retailer from the equation,” Spencer says. “When you rely on Google as the fastest way between points A and B, it’s only a matter of time before Google takes full advantage of that and cuts out the middle man.”

The Structured Snippets feature is limited in scope right now, with just a few queries triggering the extra information. The snippets only apply to organic search results, says a Google spokesman.

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