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How to use Google Shopping: Ads, Surfaces, and Buy on Google

This is a guest post from Anthony Capetola. Anthony is the Chief Marketing Officer for Sales & Orders. As the leading 3-time award-winning platform by both Google Ads and Microsoft Advertising, Sales & Orders helps ecommerce merchants effectively list and advertise their products across search engines, social media, marketplaces, and more.

If there is one thing that the coronavirus pandemic and continued, rampaging spread of COVID-19 has proven to the world, it is that anything is possible and being prepared for anything is all that you can truly do.

It has been said, though, that the pandemic has accelerated the eCommerce industry several years into the future.

Evidence of this can be seen everywhere, but none (at least in my opinion) more so than in the incredibly monumental and rapid changes Google has made in an effort to help both consumers and merchants.

On April 21st of this year, President of Commerce Bill Ready of Google stunned the eCommerce world with an announcement that can only be described in epic proportions.

Google Shopping, once thought only as a Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising channel, would become predominantly free-to-play for merchants in the United States.

Yet, the true story behind it all occurred well before April 21st, 2020 – and now, unbeknownst to many merchants still, Google Shopping is so very much more than paid advertising.

What was Google Shopping (Then)?

To explain Google Shopping now requires us to look back to the very beginning. Originally conceived in 2002 by Craig Nevill-Manning (then called Froogle) Google Shopping, at the time, was a comparison shopping service on the Google search engine.

Google Shopping Was Froogle

Google utilized its web crawlers to scan e-commerce websites of yesteryear and, with the data collected, it built a shopping experience native to the search engine.

Soon after, Froogle was rebranded to Google Product Search, and it was then that merchants could begin submitting their product information to Google via what is now more commonly known as a product data feed.

Then, in 2012, Google Shopping came to be as Google turned what was once a “free-to-play” model into a “pay-to-play” model where store owners and advertisers could leverage Google’s advertising monolith AdWords (now Google Ads) to create ad campaigns that would power the display of Product Listing Ads or PLAs on the search engine.

What followed? The fastest growing advertising segment in Google’s vault of opportunities for business owners to showcase their brand and/or products on the #1 search engine in the entire world.

What is Google Shopping (Now)?

To put history in perspective, an April study shared with us by our Google Strategic Partner team showed that clicks on Shopping Ads in the US grew by over two times in a year over year analysisexponentially more so than general Search or Text Ads did on the search engine:

Google Shopping Ads COVID Growth

Yet, this only paints (all other things being equal) merely a third of the picture of what Google Shopping is today.

Including Google’s April announcement of Free Product Listings on the Shopping tab of Google, Google Shopping is a monolith most-easily broken down into these parts:

  1. Shopping Ads
  2. Free Product Listings
  3. Buy on Google

1. Shopping Ads (Globally Available)

Product ad units that merchants pay a cost-per-click on to drive potential shoppers to their product landing pages using campaigns in Google Ads. Shopping Ads provide rich and relevant information for consumers including product images, pricing, special offers, and even product reviews.

These are the proverbial “bread and butter” of any eCommerce store owners search engine marketing or pay-per-click advertising strategy. Essentially, when a search is performed, Google’s algorithms match the keyword(s) or search query used to appropriate Shopping ads from various merchants, and then display the ad units in various formats.

Below you’ll see an example of a carousel of ads when searching for “nike shoes.”

Google Shopping Ads

It’s important to note that Shopping Ads can also appear elsewhere on Google including the Shopping tab, Images tab, and even on YouTube.

The information of each product is derived from a product feed, typically a file or even an automated connection such as an API, that is submitted to Google by a store owner or advertiser and held within Google’s product hub Merchant Center.

Products in this feed are reviewed by Google (both manually and automatically), and then are subsequently either approved or disapproved for programs such as Shopping Ads.

2. Free Product Listings

What all the commotion was about back in April, and that which continues to today, and will likely continue into the future; Google has officially made the Shopping tab of its search engine consist primarily (really though, almost entirely) of product listings that merchants do not spend a dime on to garner clicks from would-be shoppers.

On June 29th, Google sparked even more excitement as they announced that a new format for these free listings would begin appearing in the general Google search results on mobile devices.

Truth Be Told: April 21st was NOT the original announcement surrounding “free product listings” on Google. In fact, the first ever iteration of them was made public back in February of 2019, and then later enhanced in January of 2020.

Just as you must submit a product feed to Google Merchant Center for Shopping Ads, the same feed can then be used to gain access to Free Product Listings. This is all done through Merchant Center and via the program Surfaces across Google. Once the program has been enabled, and as long as products are approved by Google, a merchant becomes eligible to have their products listed for free on the Shopping tab.

Merchants can now also connect their PayPal accounts to Google Merchant Center. “The idea is to share quality signals with us. By linking their PayPal accounts, merchants with an existing Merchant Center account may improve eligibility to participate in free listings on the Shopping Tab,” said one of our Strategic Partner Managers at Google.

With the launch of Free Product Listings on Google also came new reporting inside Merchant Center that included insight into what is now known as unpaid clicks on these product listing units. These can be viewed at both an aggregate level and product level.

Google Shopping Free Product Listings

3. Buy on Google (Shopping Actions – US Only)

 So, this is where things get a little more interesting. Although I have already alluded to Google Shopping technically being “three different things, it is Buy on Google that is the one true Google Shopping today.

Just like with our aforementioned Shopping Ads and Surfaces across Google, Buy on Google is yet another program in Merchant Center that store owners can leverage.

The big difference really being that Buy on Google was a pay-per-sale model versus the pay-per-click model of Shopping Ads.

Put simply: Buy on Google is a marketplace. Think Amazon, but “Google-fied.”

Originally, Shopping Actions was connected directly to the now defunct Google Express, Google’s first iteration of a marketplace solution that was first launched as small test in 2013. In 2019, Google did away with Express, and “rebranded” to, you guessed it, Google Shopping!

With it, Google took the best that Express had to offer consumers – things such as native checkout, easy re-ordering, and all tied to their Google account – and merged it with their general brand umbrella.

Just as with Shopping Ads and Surfaces across Google, a product feed is required to power the product listings created by Buy on Google. Though few listings tie back to a merchant’s website, the true allure of the program is the native checkout or “Buy on Google” experience.

Buy on Google Shopping

As you can see in the screenshot above, this is a Buy on Google result.Some additional benefits for consumers such as select purchase protections make it a pretty darn good shopping portal, to say the least.

Up until this year, when a purchase was made, a merchant instead paid a fee or commission to Google based on the sale and the type of product sold. As of July 2020, Buy on Google has gone commission-free so merchants no longer pay anything to Google to list products on the marketplace.

Want to experience the “real” Google Shopping for yourself? When logged into your Google account, open up the Google apps menu and click on Shopping:

What follows is a very unique shopping experience with some pretty nifty features including price tracking on your favorite items:

Google Shopping

At this point you are probably thinking: “whoa!” To that, trust me – if there is anyone who understands how you feel, it’s me.

I’ve been working with “Google Shopping” since its original inception in 2012, and even has one of the foremost experts on the subject – it can be relatively overwhelming for me as well.

But, YOU SHOULD KNOW what you are getting yourself into – both the minutia and the big picture.

Whether it be with one, two, or all three of these solutions – Google Shopping presents one, if not the most valuable avenues for e-commerce merchants to attract more shoppers, increase sales, and grow their businesses online.

Why Google Shopping?

So as not to blur the lines any further, lets just look at Google Shopping in relation to ads, surfaces, and Buy on Google.

While we already broke down what they are, the more important point is: you should be leveraging at least one, if not all of them as part of your marketing and advertising strategy.

Granted, programs such as Surfaces across Google and Shopping Actions are not currently available globally – just in the United States. So, unfortunately, they simply do not apply to merchants based outside of the states.

Sorry folks! I’m just the messenger!

To be inclusive, however, I do want to break down the core aspects of what makes each solution so valuable to store owners – starting with what is widely available in nearly every country worldwide.

Shopping Ads

1) Massive Reach Potential

Globally speaking, Google alone controls over 92% of the search market share making it the de facto choice for business owners of all types to showcase their brands both organically and through paid advertising.

Though we already covered some of the growth Google saw in Shopping Ads as compared to traditional Search (Text) Ads, it’s important to remember just how much coronavirus and COVID-19 has reshaped the digital retail landscape.

More people are obviously staying home – which has, in some regions, caused a surge in online purchasing behavior. When we looked back starting in early February to today: based on over 12,000 BigCommerce stores currently using our platform to manage their Google Shopping Ad campaigns, nearly 1 billion additional ads were served since “pre-COVID” times.

2) Cost-Effective Advertising

The old adage of “you have to spend money to make money” holds very true for Shopping Ads on Google. When properly built, structured, and managed, Google Shopping campaigns can be one of the most lucrative opportunities to increase sales for your eCommerce business.

Cost-per-clicks for Shopping Ads, more so than not, sit in the pennies on the dollar as compared to other ad campaign types, and especially across different industries. It wasn’t odd to see CPCs of $50 or even more on Search Ads for lawyers or doctors.

Measuring against every merchant we work with, the average cost-per-click on Shopping ads sits at a mere 11 cents!

3) High ROI or ROAS

ROI or Return on Investment can be used to measure the entirety of the value of your marketing and advertising efforts. However, it is Return on Ad Spend (RoAS) that is the more generally utilized term specific to Google Shopping Ads or any PPC for that matter.

Due to the extremely low cost, both at a CPC and overall ad spend level of these campaigns, it is not at all uncommon to see returns exceeding 15 times. In other words, for every $1 spent on ads, you generate $15 worth of revenue.

Surfaces across Google

1) It’s free traffic

Why NOT start with the best part!?!? It does not cost a single penny to start driving more shoppers from Google. Once the program is enabled in Merchant Center, and as long as your products are approved, these Free Product Listings really become the “icing on the cake” when paired with paid Shopping Ads.

2) It’s New, and Growing

Between February of 2019 and today, the program has evolved to include all new product listing formats including enhanced listings for Apparel & Accessories products and rich shopping experiences on mobile devices.

What is in store for it in the near and distant future? There may be no telling of the depth and breath that the program can get to – but as a result of COVID-19 Google is fast tracking it all, and has seemingly made it one of its top retail priorities in 2020 and beyond.

3) It’s “For Smarter Shoppers”

The Shopping tab of Google is a true blue “comparison engine” affording consumers a palette of filtering tools to hone in on exactly what they want, when they want it most.

This, in turn, is directly beneficial to merchants as the free listings have the potential to attract far more qualified shoppers, and fewer “window shoppers.”

The Shopping tab on Google now consists almost entirely of these free listings and thus provides vital digital shelf space for merchants to showcase their goods in a super shopper-friendly environment.

Buy on Google (Shopping Actions)

1) Now Commission-Free

Although those net new to the program must submit to be put on a waitlist before onboarding officially, it now costs merchants absolutely nothing to list their products with Buy on Google. Merchants can also take advantage of using Google for their production of return labels or opt to handle that themselves.

2) Personalized Experience

When it comes to Buy on Google, it’s what benefits the consumers that also benefits you as a merchant. The true “Google Shopping ” provides shoppers a very unique platform to peruse various wares in an environment that carries the Google brand authority throughout the entire experience.

What Google tries to do is make it more fun for shoppers by personalizing the shopping journey with seasonal and holiday callouts, special deal highlights, and more.

3) Native Checkout and More

With fewer steps to take, consumers have the opportunity to shop more effortlessly than ever before – all you have to worry about is fulfilling orders. No complex ad campaigns for you to build, and no bidding on products to try and increase exposure. Shoppers sift through results, purchase directly on Google, and are even afforded certain buyer protections by Google.

Psychologically speaking this can improve buyer confidence and make them more likely to purchase again – such as with easy re-ordering options and a universal purchase history tied directly to their Google accounts.

4) Extended Reach

Buy on Google isn’t only on “Google Shopping” as these results also show in the Shopping tab alongside both paid Shopping Ads listings and those Free Product Listings generated via Surfaces across Google.

Shoppers can even filter the results specifically for the Buy on Google listings thus further streamlining their shopping experience, and potentially netting you sales more quickly.

What’s New? Free and Fast Annotations!

We here at Sales & Orders are proud to have been announced, alongside our friends at Deliverr, as one of only a select few Google-approved partners for helping with one of the newest and most exciting enhancements to Shopping Ads in 2020.

Free and fast annotations for Google Shopping Ads aim to solve for pain points of both shoppers and merchants:

  • For Shoppers: Improve their experience by surfacing relevant free and fast information earlier (e.g., Free 2-day) in the shopping journey
  • For Merchants: Create reliable, good fulfillment experiences with the potential to improve conversion rates and ads efficiency as a result of free and fast annotations

These special annotations for Shopping ad units on Google search highlight not only free shipping on products but also expected delivery and/or arrival times:

Free & Fast for Google Shopping Ads

What’s more, participation in free and fast allows for the same or similar information to appear on the new Buy on Google experience for shoppers.


So, if you didn’t know what Google Shopping was before, then I certainly hope you do now – and to a far greater extent than merchants who don’t get to read this do.

To say that there are many moving parts is clearly a vast understatement for sure. Google offers merchants a tremendous opportunity to grow and expand their businesses online, a way to take your sales and more to entirely new heights.

In the age of the coronavirus pandemic especially, merchants of all shapes and sizes MUST look at every opportunity, weigh the costs versus the benefits, and consider every option that channels such as Google have to offer them.

As consumer behavior continues to shift and change with the times, so too must merchants adapt to the changes to remain with, if not stay “ahead of the pack”.

It’s a veritable (pun fully intended) triathlon, not a race to the finish. If you do get stuck along the way though, remember that there are people such as myself, my amazing team, and the folks at Deliverr who are out there to help – every step of the way.

As I have been signing off since the pandemic first began, to you I want to say: stay healthy, stay safe, and remain informed!

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