Search advertising has swelled to become an industry worth over $35 billion annually, yet it is still heavily driven by text-based searches and dominated by Google.
However as Google’s index goes mobile-first, consumers get to grips with voice search, and technology advances to avail of image identification in our predominantly visual culture, new opportunities are opening up for the competition.
One such opportunity lies in the use of Google’s own Chrome web browser, which allows companies (including Google’s rivals) to develop and disseminate extensions to grow their digital footprint.
This may not necessitate or even facilitate a seismic shift in the industry, if Google continues to provide a search product that responds best to a user’s query.
Undoubtedly, Google remains the go-to location when consumers know what they want; but what if other providers could get in on the act earlier, by nudging consumers towards products they hadn’t thought of or never knew existed? What if consumers start to move away from text queries, and image or voice search become the norm?
These are the questions Amazon and Pinterest are pondering as they look to break Google’s hegemonic hold on the market. This has seen both companies launch paid search products, but something significant has to give if consumers are to switch from the well-worn habit of reaching out to Google first.
Intriguingly, recent moves suggest Amazon and Pinterest are prepared to use Google’s own Chrome platform to loosen the search giant’s iron grip on ad revenues, with what are at times aggressive tactics.
Although some commonalities exist across both challengers, there is much to distinguish them too. We’ll begin with Amazon’s Chrome extension before moving on to Pinterest’s recently-upgraded offering.
Amazon Assistant for Chrome
Amazon’s Assistant tracks users as they browse other sites and locates opportunities to alert them of better deals on the same product over at Amazon.com.
This feature looks something like this in action:
No doubt, this is an overbearing approach designed to have the maximum disruptive impact on a consumer’s experience, diverting their path to purchase towards the comfort of Amazon’s one-click purchases and free deliveries. And all at a lower price, too.
There are reports of some websites blocking the extension and, in the pettiest of cases, ensuring that low quality images of products are used when a consumer adds them to their Amazon wish list, in the hope of dissuading them from finishing the purchase there.
However, the damage may well be done by that stage. Digital consumers vote with their fingers, and people tend to follow where the best deals are.
Where this gets particularly fascinating for those of us in the search industry is when we apply this Chrome extension to Google search results pages.
With the extension downloaded (I am based in the US), a clearly commercial query like [laptops] returns the following results:
Indeed, those are Amazon results at the very top of the page.
This very assertive approach sees Amazon encroach directly on Google’s owned space, in fact relegating them to a lower position.
Even a much less commercial query returns this option to purchase from Amazon:
It is noteworthy that while no advertisers are bidding on the term [john berger and our faces my heart brief as photos] via Google, Amazon’s search engine has a match for the query and, therefore, it shows an ad above the Google results.
I have seen this occur for about a month now (on other, less obscure queries) and, even if Google moves to shut this down in future, it is a clear and overt statement of intent from Amazon.
A look at the terms and conditions for the Amazon Assistant reveals how this is happening.
The list of information gathered by Amazon is extensive (to the extent of being troubling) and includes the following statement:
“We will collect and store information such as the name and price of the product, the webpage on which the item is sold, your Amazon account, your search query, and other information.”
Nested in there is the operative phrase “your search query”. By capturing a search query, Amazon can cross-reference its own inventory to see whether there is a match and dynamically serve the available options.
The aim, evidently, is to create an ‘all roads lead to Amazon’ approach within e-commerce, and the only way to do that right now is to take market share directly from Google and other retailers.
Strategically, this makes a lot of sense. Each of the main players would love to have a self-enclosed ecosystem that houses billions of users and all of their accompanying data.
Only Facebook can lay even tenuous claim to such a lofty ambition, so for the likes of Pinterest and Amazon there is no other option than to reach beyond their own platforms and observe, ready for the opportune moment to communicate with consumers.
Amazon, therefore, has adopted the assumption that consumers will swallow any level of intrusion into their data and their online experience if they ultimately end up with a better deal on products.
Pinterest has a rather different market position, user base, and approach to search. So how do these take shape within their revamped Chrome extension?
Pinterest save button
We have written about the advances in visual search taking place on Pinterest recently, but use of that technology is of course dependent on people visiting their site initially to conduct a search.
What the browser extension can now become is a vehicle to carry that technology to a much wider arena, to any site Pinterest users (or ‘Pinners’) visit.
In their blog post announcing the launch, Pinterest stated that the latest iteration of their Chrome extension will allow consumers to conduct a visual search using any image or webpage they visit.
The screenshot below is an example of this in action, with a user selecting the sunglasses within the image and Pinterest suggesting a variety of similar products to browse:
This provides access to Pinterest’s vast database of images and its industry-leading image recognition software, without even having to visit the Pinterest site. All of this occurs while the user stays on the original web page, only moving them to Pinterest if they click on one of the suggested images.
Another striking aspect of the blog post comes in this statement:
“Now anything you see on Pinterest, or capture with the camera in your Pinterest app, can kick off a search for great ideas—all without typing a single character.”
The business strategy here is not to tackle Google head on à la Amazon, but rather to engage users before they even know what they want to type. As such, the aim is to offer a different experience altogether, driven uniquely by images.
When we think of search, we think of Google, paid ads, and ten blue links. But by stepping into an area that pre-dates those steps in a consumer’s mind, Pinterest may find a niche that Google has not yet managed to tap into just yet.
The language used in the announcement is notable too, if we compare Amazon and Pinterest; in place of ‘products’, read ‘ideas’, for example. This is a subtle but telling distinction, with Pinterest looking to claim the more aspirational ground within the e-commerce search market.
Pinterest’s new visual search functionality will extend to other browser extensions “soon” and will allow brands to opt out, but Pinterest is of course hoping that the mutual benefits will outweigh the inconveniences for retailers. As is the case with Amazon, the force of consumer demand will ultimately drive (or halt) the extension’s adoption and acceptance.
What should marketers make of this?
Competition breeds innovation and search has been close to a monopoly for too long, in that sense. Google evolves and new products are rolled out constantly, but these are often tantamount to slightly bigger versions of the PPC ads we had yesterday, or an increasingly inconspicuous ‘Ad’ label.
Competition also increases scarcity, of course, and scarcity drives up prices. We have seen this with Google CPC prices and more recently on Facebook, so the diversification of options for advertisers could help to stem that tide.
Pinterest’s global head of partnerships, Jon Kaplan, has even been quoted recently saying, “You might see a pretty steep discount”, when comparing their inventory prices to Facebook or Google.
The possibility of another major player in this arena, be it Amazon, Pinterest, or both, should therefore be welcomed by consumers and advertisers alike. By everyone except Google and Facebook, in fact.
Pinterest made a clear declaration of intent last week with the announcement that Randy Keller, Google’s former head of image search, has joined the photo sharing site as Head of Search.
This appointment is reflective of a strategy to challenge both Google and Amazon in the product-based visual search market. Notably, Pinterest also rolled out their paid search offering, driven initially through a partnership with Kenshoo, in 2016.
Due to the glacial pace of advertising product launches from Pinterest over the past few years, some in the industry felt their opportunity to monetise their user base may have passed.
Moreover, the keyword-based paid search market is saturated as it is, with Google constantly trialling new ways to eke out more searches.
However, in many of the potential growth areas for the industry, such as voice search, personalisation, and most obviously, image search, Pinterest believe they have something different to offer.
As a social platform focused more on nourishing the self than sharing selfies, Pinterest is inherently driven by the power of images. Nonetheless, the history of image search has shown that mastering the requisite technology to tap into this potential is no mean feat.
How Pinterest plans to tackle visual search
On February 7, Pinterest launched their new Visual Discovery Tools, including Lens. Built into the Pinterest app, through Lens users can point their camera at an item and the app will make suggestions based on what it sees. Point the camera at some asparagus, for example, and the app will suggest some recipes.
This is a further stage of development from Amazon’s Firefly (available through the Amazon app), which can recognise objects and suggest similar items to purchase, but is not yet able to make the conceptual leap to suggest complementary products or ideas.
Pinterest posted the following in relation to the Lens launch:
“Sometimes you spot something out in the world that looks interesting, but when you try to search for it online later, words fail you. You have this rich, colorful picture in your mind, but you can’t translate it into the words you need to find it.
At Pinterest, we’ve developed new experimental technology that, for the first time ever, is capable of seeing the world the way you do.
It’s called Lens (currently in beta), and it lets you use the camera in your Pinterest app to discover ideas inspired by objects you see out in the real world.”
This is in beta and works best with food, clothing and decor at the moment, but the possibilities are endless if the technology continues to develop. With an estimated 75 billion Pins to sift through, it may take a while.
However at Pinterest, there is clearly a belief that cracking visual search can start to bridge the gap between language and the world around us.
The fact that they routinely refer to ‘idea searches’ rather than ‘keywords’ is indicative of this focus on adding a new spin to a deeply-ingrained feature of internet usage. This is intriguing on many levels, but strikingly it may offer a new avenue for advertisers to engage with consumers at an optimal time, through the ideal medium.
Pinterest and ad blockers
This leads on nicely to the current ad landscape, one in which many internet users have resorted to ad blockers to avoid overbearing messaging.
Another stated aim at Pinterest is to re-frame ads as a welcome way to discover new ideas, concepts and products, rather than an intrusion into a user’s browsing experience.
An advertiser’s product feed, if synced to Pinterest’s image search algorithms, could deliver increasingly timely and relevant results to users. Where this becomes most compelling is in the ‘related searches’ that Pinterest provides. So for example, a search for shoes could also provide recommendations for the rest of an outfit.
If advertising can become synonymous with the discovery of new and exciting ideas, it suddenly seems much more appealing to the consumer. As such, consumers could be much more willing to jettison their ad blockers and engage with promoted results.
This is a tall order and perhaps quite a utopian aspiration at this stage, but the theory is seductive nonetheless.
Offering an alternative to Amazon and Google
Much has been made of Amazon’s continued rise in the search market, and an oft-cited 2016 survey from Power Reviews placed them as the preferred starting point for product searches among US consumers.
This was particularly newsworthy for the fact that it relegated Google to second place. The battle for supremacy in such a profitable arena has only intensified since, with commercial searches the main prize.
The most interesting aspects of this – and where Pinterest comes back into the fray – are the reasons why Amazon has taken this lofty position.
Predictably, variety of products ranks as the most popular reason, followed by free shipping and competitive pricing.
Amazon led with these value propositions and they continue to drive the company’s success, even with the advent of more innovative home technologies like the Echo and Echo Dot.
Google has been at pains to streamline its purchasing processes too, in search, shopping, and their rival to the Echo, Google Home.
What these platforms ultimately provide to the consumer is a frictionless way to purchase products from reliable sources. The consumer knows what they want and they reveal this by searching for it, and companies are willing to pay for the chance to get in front of customers at this high-intent purchase stage.
But there is more to some product-consumer relationships than just a seamless transaction, and it is one that either Google or Amazon would have to work hard to avail of in its entirety.
Pinterest’s competitive advantage
Pinterest has the enviable asset of an engaged user base, not on the premise of deals or free shipping, but on the experience the platform allows them to create and the ideas it allows them to access.
Pinterest may not be a credible threat when it comes to some clear transactional searches, where the consumer knows what they want and is really looking for a comparison, by price or by review ratings. But this seems very unlikely to be Pinterest’s natural marketplace anyway.
It would be very interesting to segment the Power Reviews survey results further to understand the different categories within product searches. The act of searching can be nuanced; it implies uncertainty and a desire to be provided with an answer.
The answers Pinterest can provide, if technologies like Lens take hold and it delivers on the enticing promise to read the world through visual search, will go far beyond a traditional list of links and images, and into the realm of something much more inspirational for consumers.
As such, it would be fascinating to know how many product searches, whether on Google, Facebook, Amazon or Pinterest, fall into this category. Or perhaps more appropriately, how many searches would fall into this category if people knew the technology existed.
Combined with the one-click purchase technology Pinterest plans to integrate worldwide, this would see Pinterest tick many of the boxes that shape the ‘Why Shoppers Start on Amazon’ graph featured above, and also generate new demand.
Consumers can be fickle and if they prize the variety of products on offer (as evidence suggests they do), the platform that provides this will become their preferred destination. If it can do this by resolving the awkward paradox inherent in ‘traditional’ image search (using words to search for images, often with unconvincing results), it will be all the more attractive and effective.
Advertisers, of course, will follow where consumers go, especially if Pinterest continues to develop their paid search offering through 2017.
Delivering better search results through new technology and a growing pool of users is a model ripe for monetisation, a possibility not lost on Pinterest. For luxury goods, home decor, and fashion companies, this platform seems a natural fit and it would not be surprising to see these brands among the early adopters of paid advertising on Pinterest.
What does the future hold for Pinterest?
Attention spans are a precious, dwindling commodity, and simply shouting at consumers just won’t cut through.
By connecting to, and enhancing, our experience of the world around us, Pinterest may be in a position to steal a march on the competition – in technological terms, at least. A monthly user base of 150 million lags behind the giants in this arena and Pinterest will not gather the clout to tackle Google for Search dominance, but its development is no less compelling for that.
Ours is an increasingly visual culture, and Pinterest is well placed to challenge on the basis of the big focal points in search today; local, personalisation, voice, image, video, and app integration. It also offers a different experience to users that potentially allows advertisers to sell without intruding.
That makes for a potent combination and, should it all come together as planned, could see Pinterest offer a welcome alternative to Google and Amazon for marketers and consumers alike.
Welcome to our weekly round-up of all the latest news and research from the world of search marketing and beyond.
This week, Amazon is wooing Prime subscribers with a new, exclusive credit card, brand interest in Snapchat may not be as high as it seems, and the privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo is on the up-and-up, reaching a record of 14 million anonymous searches in one day.
Amazon unveils new credit card exclusive to Prime members
Since the launch of Amazon Prime as an express shipping service in 2005, Amazon has continued to add benefits to its exclusive subscription service in a bit to retain existing subscribers and lure new ones.
The latest of these is the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card, a new credit card exclusive to Amazon Prime members, which offers a hefty 5% cashback on all Amazon purchases, as well as a 1-2% cashback on other types of purchase, and a $70 gift card to new cardholders once they’re approved.
Al Roberts covered the news for ClickZ this week, looking at how Amazon is aiming to outdo major retail rival Costco with the new card, in its bid to become the go-to retailer in the U.S. and elsewhere.
More brands sign up for Snapchat, but not all are active
Snapchat is currently preparing to make an Initial Public Offering that could be the largest in the social media space since Facebook’s in 2012.
But although Snapchat has made a number of moves to tempt businesses into marketing on its platform, such as adding ecommerce features, redesigning its Discover platform to appeal to publishers, and adding Facebook-like audience targeting, a new report by research firm L2 has revealed that many businesses still don’t know what to do with Snapchat.
According to L2, many of the brands that are signed up to Snapchat have “struggled to produce content for the platform”, and the amount of active brands on Snapchat dropped from 70% to 67% between January and October. Al Roberts reported on the news for ClickZ this week and assessed whether Snapchat will be able to build up the momentum to challenge Facebook’s social media dominance.
Why the world’s major brands are making the switch to their own web extension
To date, more than 550 of the world’s largest brands have applied for their own Top-Level Domains, or TLDs – the part of a URL that appears after the dot (e.g. .com or .net).
Given the sizeable application fee of almost $200,000 USD, it stands to reason that most of the brands using these TLDs are big hitters like Apple, Google, Walmart and Nike, using them to create more simplified and memorable navigation that harks back to the days of Windows 2000. Tereza Litsa looked at how the new extensions work, and what the benefits are for both marketers and consumers.
eBay to launch authentication service for high-end merchandise
eBay is one of the web’s foremost ecommerce pioneers, facilitating the purchase of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of goods every year. But one of its biggest sources of friction relates to the sale of counterfeit goods, particularly high-end and luxury goods such as jewellery, fashion and handbags.
For years, eBay has offered a Verified Rights Owner programme which lets brands report suspected fakes, but late last week it announced that it will be launching a new programme, eBay Authenticate, which is specifically targeted at sellers of luxury items. Due to roll out later this year, eBay Authenticate will allow high-end sellers to have professional authenticators evaluate their items for an as-yet unspecified fee. It also promises, subject to certain terms and conditions, to refund buyers twice the cost of the original item if merchandise they purchase is found to be counterfeit during the eBay Authenticate process.
DuckDuckGo hits 14 million searches in one day
The privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo yesterday announced two major milestones to its blog: at the end of last year, it surpassed a cumulative total of 10 billion searches served, with more than 4 billion of those carried out in 2016 alone. And earlier this month, DuckDuckGo reached an all-time high of 14 million searches in just one day.
DuckDuckGo hailed this news as a success for the spread of privacy online, pointing out a Pew Research Study which reported that 40% of users believe their search engine shouldn’t retain information about their search activity. It’s definitely a huge achievement for a small, independent search engine like DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t retain any information about its users or sell it on to advertisers, and whose features are largely community-created and crowdsourced.
Its presence mostly spreads by word of mouth, and yet DuckDuckGo’s traffic is growing faster than ever, which could indicate that more and more people are starting to take an interest in privacy and anonymity online.
Welcome to our weekly round-up of all the latest news and research from the world of search marketing and beyond.
This week, Larry Kim peers into his crystal ball to make some outlandish predictions for SEO in 2017; Facebook is preparing to flip the switch on a mid-roll video ad offering that will share revenue with users; and – here’s a name you probably weren’t expecting to see crop up in the news – AOL is offering up free wireless data as a reward for engaging with ads.
Nine crazy predictions for SEO in 2017
It’s January, and as we all know, the arrival of January and the new year heralds the arrival of any number of predictions posts across every website you visit. (I myself am guilty of publishing one this week). But with his ‘Nine crazy predictions for SEO in 2017‘, Larry Kim promises a predictions post like no other.
From the biggest rankings shift in the history of Google, to the death of organic listings 6-10, and the complete demise of local SEO (yikes!), Kim has definitely gone bold and big with his predictions, all while citing evidence to back each one up. The predictions might seem “crazy”, but the reasoning isn’t, making this an article you mustn’t miss.
And if anyone would like to set up a Search Engine Watch betting pool where we all place bets on which of the predictions will come true and when, I’m all in.
Facebook to get mid-roll ads and share revenue with users
On top of being the world’s most popular social network, Facebook has also become one of the most popular destinations for consuming online video content. Yet although Facebook has never been slow to monetise other parts of its service, it has sought very little revenue from its videos – until now.
Al Roberts reports for ClickZ this week on the news that Facebook is poised to implement a mid-roll ad offering which will share 55% of the revenue generated with creators. In his piece, Roberts looks into the reasons why this could be a game-changer for Facebook’s advertising business. Last year, recode reported that Facebook is nearing the maximum amount of ads that it can show in a user’s News Feed. It’s clear that we are seeing the beginnings of Facebook’s newly diversified advertising strategy in response to that, following on from its monetisation of Facebook Messenger with sponsored messages in 2016.
Consumers continue to turn to Amazon first for product search
Every year, Google handles more than a trillion search queries, making it the world’s most popular search engine – something that will not exactly come as news to anyone who follows this website. But despite the existence of Google Shopping, when it comes to searches for products, Google is not the internet user’s first choice. According to analysts at financial services platform Raymond James, that honour belongs to Amazon.
It isn’t the first time we’ve heard this news, or something like it; in September 2016, Graham Charlton reported for ClickZ that 55% of all product searches begin on Amazon, and a survey of more than 1,000 US consumers by PowerReviews in June also found that Amazon came first in product search. However, the figures from Raymond James re-confirm the fact that marketers shouldn’t be ignoring Amazon in their paid search campaigns. Could it be that some of their PPC efforts should be redirected towards Amazon?
Image from Amazon Marketing Services
Why you should be questioning every part of your organic search strategy in 2017
When was the last time you really tore apart your search strategy and examined why it is the way it is? In 2017, Kevin Gamache is challenging Search Engine Watch readers to “make 2017 the year you question everything”.
In his article for SEW this week, Kevin lays out five fundamental questions to start asking about your search strategy, which cover everything from defining your approach to organic search to asking yourself who your customers are and how you want to target them. If one of your New Year’s resolutions was to take a fresh look at your SEO strategy, put this piece on your reading list.
AOL tries to lure leads with free wireless data
“AOL”. Just saying the name can give many of us flashbacks to the days of stuttering dial-up tones and a soothing female voice intoning “You have e-mail.” But in 2017, news about AOL is much more rare. Verizon purchased AOL for $4.4 billion back in 2015, and now, Al Roberts reports that the company is leveraging its wireless network as part of a new ad offering called BrandBuilder by AOL.
So what is this new “ad creative framework”, and what do Verizon/AOL hope to achieve with it? Al Roberts looks into the details of the scheme over on ClickZ, and considers whether AOL’s offering of free wireless data as an incentive will be enough to generate true engagement.