It’s the most powerful search engine in the world. So how can you as a retailer make the most of the power of Google? Joanna Perry reveals all

There are many astonishing facts that can be found about Google on the web, many of which can be discovered by googling Google. But perhaps the biggest eye-opener for retailers is that consumers consider Google to be a retailer itself.

Stores magazine’s Favourite 50 Online Retailers 2007 report, which polled American consumers, placed Google ninth, ahead of retailers such as Sears, Circuit City, Macy’s and Home Depot. The report’s editor Peter Johnston reasons that the results indicate that “customers are so comfortable with the search engine that they consider it their home base for online shopping”.

So Google provides both threats and opportunities to retailers. The more that consumers trust Google to come up with the goods in product search results, the harder it is for bricks-and-mortar retailers to trade on their own brand online. On the other hand, if retailers can harness the power that Google has online and its knowledge of what happens on the web, then it could be a match made in heaven.

So why single out this technology company over any other?

Google accounts for more than half of the world’s online searches and, in the UK, the figure is even higher at two thirds. So it could be argued that any retailer’s search engine optimisation strategy will provide the greatest return if it revolves around Google.

Google tops the rankings of most visited web sites in the UK. The latest available figures from internet information provider comScore show that 29.1 million unique visitors aged 15 or older, or 90 per cent of the UK’s internet audience, visited the site in October.

While many retailers might wish that Google did not exist – well-known brands are easy to find on the web with a little URL guesswork – choice-hungry consumers have lapped up the volumes of information it provides.

It is without doubt that many retail executives have Google set as the home page on their internet browser. However, if you look further than the search box, Google has a tremendous amount of activity, information and innovation that should be catching retailers’ eyes.

One simple suggestion is to explore iGoogle, the company’s search home page that lets users personalise it by choosing content to publish. Those users who are interested in retail can add Google’s retail industry tools to their iGoogle home page. These mini-feeds display data from a range of relevant retail sources, including Verdict, Hitwise, the Internet Advertising Bureau and even a news feed from Retail Week’s web site.

And the search engine is not just for consumers; retailers can use it as well, to find out how many other sites have linked to theirs. You do this by typing “link:”, followed by your URL – for instance, link:www.retail-week.com – into the search engine. The search results provide a measure of how relevant and how highly recommended a web site is by the wider internet community and, in the search engines’ eyes, how highly a site should be ranked in natural search listings. For example, at the time of writing, Topshop’s home page had 1,360 links, compared with Tesco’s 5,790 and Amazon UK’s staggering 809,000.

Those who are more concerned with the long-term future of the internet should inspect what’s going on at Google Labs too. This research and development division of Google describes itself as a playground for its adventurous surfers to use and offer feedback on its prototypes. Some of its ideas never make it further than this stage, but the most successful are rolled out to Google’s main platform eventually.

Some people, especially its competitors, are arguing that Google is too powerful. Certainly, if a supermarket chain had built its market share to three quarters within a decade, you can be sure that competitors would be complaining.

And, sure enough, Google’s proposed purchase of online ad-serving company DoubleClick is being probed by the European Commission, with a report not expected until April next year.

Whether the purchase is approved or not, it is likely that retailers with online ambitions will have to engage with the company more often in future.

Search

Top of the list of things that retailers want to know about Google is exactly how it decides which web pages will top the lists in its natural search results. Google says that, despite the many organisations that make their money from advising on this, the reality is that its algorithms are a closely guarded secret. Google changes these regularly to ensure that sites that are set up purely to beat the system are not allowed to prosper in search result terms, compared with those with relevant content.

Google’s paid-for search listings – which retailers can bid on through Google’s AdWords programme – are a kind of classified advertising on the web. However, Google says that the price-per-click bid is only part of the story because, even here, relevancy to the keyword is still a factor.

Google has tied its AdWords programme to its transaction-processing service Google Checkout. At the programme’s launch, Google enticed AdWords customers with a free transaction-processing offer and let them display a Google Checkout badge on their AdWords ads.

Another search-related tool that Google offers for free is Google Analytics. This allows advertisers, publishers and site owners to see where their visitors come from, how they use their site and whether they are converted into customers.

Payment processing

Since its UK launch in April, Google’s online payment processing service Google Checkout has sought to make the transaction process seamless for consumers.

The system is based on the belief that Google is the first point of call for consumers researching online purchases. Once they have searched for their desired product, shoppers who are signed up to Google Checkout can click through on an ad which showing the logo and then purchase the product via a quick checkout process.

Retailers that have added Google Checkout to their site include Vodafone, Goldsmiths, JML Direct and Dabs. In particular, BT-owned technology e-tailer Dabs has seen a strong take-up of Google Checkout by customers (Retail Week, November 16). Since it introduced Google Checkout and PayPal services to its site in October, 25 per cent of customers have selected them as their payment method. The split between Google Checkout and PayPal has been fairly even on the site, although there has been no overt advertising and little user education.

Clearly, the Google brand inspires confidence in customers when paying online. Perhaps banks should watch out, because Google Checkout’s transaction-processing charges of 1.5 per cent, plus a 15p fee, are extremely competitive.

Web 2.0

With its purchase of YouTube, Google has taken a massive punt on the future opportunities that could be created through user-generated content.

The impact that video could have on the internet has only recently started to be explored by businesses, yet consumers have been quicker to express themselves via the medium.

Last year, Boots’ Christmas TV ad campaign aired on YouTube before it made the small screen. This year’s YouTube favourites include Tesco’s Spice Girls ad, which has been viewed almost 900,000 times in the past two weeks. Just imagine how much that kind of coverage costs in a prime TV advertising slot.

With customers’ acceptance of video on web sites having been driven by the success of YouTube, retailers are beginning to add video demos of products to their sites and online ratings and reviews specialists have mooted video as one of their next steps.

Google is also experimenting with how relevant video content could form part of its AdSense programme, which matches ads to customers’ sites.

Google trends

One of the tools being developed by Google Labs is Google Trends. Visit google.co.uk/trends to see how terms have been searched for by Google users around the world.

For instance, examining the trends surrounding the keyword “Tesco”, the tool maps the search activity over the past few yeas, picking out points where Tesco has received large amounts of press coverage.

The tool also highlights the regions, cities and languages that conduct above-average searches on the term, relative to overall search activity among different communities. Not surprisingly for “Tesco”, the top region is the UK and the top city is Watford. More surprising is the top language: Slovak.

This does not mean that more people searching the Slovak version of Google have searched “Tesco” than those searching the English version. Rather, the tool calculates the proportion of searches for your term coming from each language site, compared with total Google searches coming from that site.

This relative view of Google’s search history throws up some interesting trends. For instance, in global analysis of the search term “Wii”, Manchester came out as the top city – ahead of LA, New York and even Tokyo.

The tool also includes a Hot Trends index, which is updated on an hourly basis, whereas Google Trends is updated with fresh data daily. At the moment, the Hot Trends being displayed are based on data from US Google users only and show a snapshot of what’s on the public’s mind by displaying the top 100 fastest-rising searches. You can select a recent date to see what the top risers were and what the search activity looked like over the course of that day.