A weapons seller loses favor with Google

E-retailer Cory Brown responds by creating his own marketplace.

Amy Dusto

Most traffic to BigSupplyShop.com’s traffic—about 80%—used to come from organic search results on Google Inc.’s search engine, says Cory Brown, who owns the site and four other sporting goods e-commerce stores.

So last summer, when the search engine giant began charging retailers to place ads in search results against product-related search terms, a program called Google Shopping, he became one of the first merchants to buy the new ads, which Google calls Product Listing Ads (PLAs). That is until one day around Halloween, when four of his sites abruptly fell off of Google Shopping search results. The one that didn’t disappears sells only boating supplies—the others all sell weapons, ammunition and other hunting and tactical gear accessories among their 22,000 total items, he says.

After two weeks of confusion, Brown says he found out from a senior manager for the AdWords division,  Google’s paid search advertising unit, that the company had changed his policy regarding the products he sells. Any retailer selling weapons and certain related items anywhere on its e-commerce site is restricted in buying AdWords ads or the new Product Listing Ads, the manager said. Another Google spokesman clarifies that retailers may still buy ads for other items, like tennis balls, if they sell weapons, but they cannot link to a landing page that includes the weapons. Google may also diapprove ads that link to a page with site navigation elements that appear to lead to banned items—such as a big red box that says "buy guns here!"—at its discretion, he adds.

He also says that the policy had long been in place for AdWords and, after initial tests of Product Listing Ads, the company wanted to harmonize its rules for all ad formats. “We don't have a single set of policies for both (Google) Shopping and AdWords but, after last year's change, the weapons and guns policies are very, very similar,” he says.

“Google Shopping doesn’t allow the promotion of weapons or devices designed to cause serious harm or injury,” read the online rules. Those weapons include guns, gun parts or hardware, ammunition, bombs, knives, throwing stars and brass knuckles. In the United Kingdom, stun gun Product Listing Ads and e-retailers selling them are also banned from Google Shopping, while in the United States, airsoft guns are allowed in ads or on an advertising merchant’s site “as long as the landing page has a disclaimer that guns are required to have the tip (1/4 inch) of the barrel permanently colored in blaze orange,” the rules say. Airsoft guns use gas or an electric-powered piston to shoot non-metallic pellets.

Google Shopping also restricts advertisers promoting and selling products in 17 other categories, including alcohol, tobacco, fireworks, live animals, health and medical goods and vehicles. 

When the policy took effect, Brown says he immediately lost about 50% of his revenue stream, though he’s slowly been building up alternative marketing since then and now revenue is down just 20% year over year. The change has affected more than weapon-related sales, he says, as it’s now as hard for shoppers searching on Google to find a tent as ammo from his blocked stores. He noticed, too, that most of his competitors also fell off Google Shopping search results at the same time.

“By Google doing this, they have really thrown the whole sporting goods marketplace into a tizzy,” Brown says. “Customers call and say they can’t price shop anymore because they can’t type in a part number [for one of the banned items] and find it by manufacturer or check pricing, shipping rates, ratings, etc.”

Hoping to fill that void, Brown in November founded a new online marketplace for guns and related goods, FreeGunShow.com. Any merchant or independent seller can list items on the marketplace, he says, with FreeGunShow.com taking a 1% cut of every sale. He says 400 merchants are already signed up and selling thousands of products on the site. Buyers and sellers find the marketplace via Facebook, where Brown pays for FreeGunShow.com advertising and updates its page daily, he says. So far FreeGunShow.com has more than 7,600 likes on the social network.

The marketplace will also include a listings-by-city section, which a gun enthusiast can use to find, buy and sell weapons online in a format similar to the free consumer-to-consumer listings site Craigslist.com, he says.


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