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Google Unpaid Shopping Listings: Where Are They Now?

Back in late April, Google announced the roll out of free traffic on its Shopping tab to help merchants better connect with consumers. The pandemic was in its earlier stages in the US and many small businesses were struggling after closing their doors to foot traffic. While targeted at small businesses that don’t have large enough advertising budgets to compete on paid listings, the free listings were made available to anyone with a feed in the Merchant Center, including large retailers.

Now that free listings have been live for 7+ months and were expanded out to the main SERP, we pulled some data to check in on what Merkle clients are seeing and share potential considerations heading into 2021.

Click traffic as a percentage of paid clicks has remained fairly steady

Across our sampling of retailers, free traffic as a percentage of paid Shopping traffic hovered between 4.5% and 5.1% for the months of August through November, peaking in October (note that this November data does not include the Cyber weekend). Percentages varied by retailer and ranged from 1.7% to 16.6%, depending on variables like seasonality, shopping campaign goals, and product category. At first glance, seeing a peak in October rather than November may seem surprising. However, the dip from October to November was partially a reflection of increased investment in paid traffic rather than a decline in interest on free traffic.

The 4.5 to 5% average we’ve seen in recent months is in line with percentages we saw this spring after the product first launched. Seeing this relative stability at different points in the year is not too surprising. The overwhelming majority of this traffic likely comes through the Shopping tab, with some traffic coming from the product knowledge panel on the main SERP. While there’s really no limit to the inventory that Google can show on the Shopping tab, consumer interest in that page likely hasn’t changed much over the course of the year. Since the Google Shopping redesign in 2019, there haven’t been any recent efforts to pull customers away from the main SERP onto the Shopping property.

Considerations for free listings in 2021

While most retailers see a small percentage of their feed-based traffic coming through free clicks, there are a few considerations when planning for free listings management next year.

1. Include your entire product catalog

Many advertisers suppress some portion of their product feed from paid advertising, typically because margins or prices are too low to make paid traffic efficient. Retailers should consider sending those products to Google for free listings to increase their exposure with no spend risk.

As a side note, free shopping traffic is available for Local Inventory Ads in addition to Product Listing Ads, so local-only advertisers can still participate! While the data set was smaller, free LIAs’ share of paid traffic looked similar to PLAs.

2. Keep an eye on SKU-specific searches

As mentioned earlier, this summer, Google started including free listings on the product knowledge panel. Advertisers that have historically seen a lot of paid traffic on certain SKU-focused queries should monitor paid performance on these searches to see if a portion of it appears to migrate to free traffic. Focus in on just the highest volume queries, since lower volume long-tail searches may not be showing up in search term reports anymore. We don’t currently have query-level insight for free clicks, but Google’s product-level insights in the Merchant Center can highlight how unpaid traffic has trended for particular SKUs.

Google free listing

Image of product knowledge panel from blog.google

3. Use third-party analytics tracking to understand sales impact from free traffic

In order to track orders and revenue associated with free traffic on Google, you’ll need to add tracking parameters from your third-party tracking tool (think Google Analytics, Coremetrics, Omniture, etc.). You can find more details here about how to use the various link attributes in the feed to accomplish this. If you choose not to add separate parameters to track free performance, note that these clicks and their corresponding revenue will still filter into your analytics reporting, but may be misattributed to organic.

4. Optimize products in the feed with high value potential

Because there is no bidding element, product data quality is one of the sole levers that advertisers have to improve product positioning within free listings. Within the Merchant Center we can see free impressions, clicks, and CTR at the product level. Different views can highlight products that may be underperforming their potential and could use some attention in the feed to improve product relevancy or data richness. First, products that perform strongly on paid traffic but get limited visibility in free listings may lack key information in fields like title, description, and product type. Similarly, products receiving free impressions with a relatively low CTR might be showing lower in the free results and could benefit from improved relevancy. As a bonus, any feed improvements made to support free listings will also apply to your paid traffic!

Heading into the new year, it’s important to look at your own free listing data to determine how to prioritize the action items we’ve outlined above. As with everything in digital marketing, this is all subject to change, so keep an eye on Google’s blog too. New developments that could encourage more or less customer engagement on the Shopping tab may change the priority level of initiatives focused on free listings.