Google’s Search-Within-a-Site Feature: Let the E-Tailer Beware

It all used to be so simple — at least for retailers. Back in the day, it was enough to have your catalog online; then interactivity and rich media came along. Now, we’re in an age of personalization, where buyer patterns are predicted and mapped to up-sell and cross-sell options. The Internet has indelibly changed the way retailers engage with prospects, and how products are sold.

We’ve watched as every retail best practice in the physical world has been transformed for the virtual world — from shopping cart functionality to the experience of having an online salesperson. In the same way merchandisers used to match the perfect pair of pants with the perfect shirt for their in-store displays, retailers have embraced the power of today’s e-commerce and search platforms to deliver the most effective up-sell and cross-sell strategies site-wide.

Retailers have paid handsomely to create a brand experience — and no wonder. When consumers find the right mix of navigation, selection and recommendation, they become loyal customers. As such, it’s more important than ever for a retailer to get consumers to their site.

A Completely Different Thing

To that end, retailers have enthusiastically harnessed the power of search marketing. Search marketing offers great reach, an effective cost structure and the opportunity to engage consumers wherever they are in the research or purchase cycle. With nearly 90 percent of sales being initiated online with research, search offers a return on investment like few other marketing channels. As such, Google and other search providers have deservedly become an integral part of the retailer customer acquisition puzzle.

However, retailers beware: Google’s newest offering, “Search within a Site,” is a completely different thing — and my advice to retailers is to just say no.

Google built its search-within-a-site feature to address the concerns of users looking to drill down for more information after an initial search. Users can type a company name into the search field, and their selected vendor will likely be among the top results. With this feature, a second search bar appears underneath the site description, allowing users to narrow their query to a specific product.

Sharing Face Time

For instance, if I wanted to check out the latest tech gadgets at (which at one time had search-within-a-site functionality), I could type Newegg into the Google search bar, then specify under the search-within-a-site bar “DVD burner.” I’d then get results for whatever DVD burners Newegg was selling within the Google Search page. Sounds interesting, right? To a consumer, it offers value and ease of use and minimal clicks and makes Google even more robust. To a retailer, it’s dangerous.

As a consumer interested in Newegg’s resale offerings, I still haven’t entered Newegg’s actual site. I’m getting results for my narrow search, but am seeing similar offerings from a plethora of DVD vendors, and I have no way to see all of Newegg’s other promotions and sales. No one knows better than Newegg how to monetize its offerings. It, like most retailers, has invested deeply in creating a guided user experience; yet with Google’s new feature, consumers remain on Google rather going to their initial destination.

More importantly, while I view Newegg’s product results in Google, I’m confronted by a litany of advertisements for similar products — from Newegg’s competitors — thanks to AdWords. Suddenly, Newegg is forced to share face time — which it has purchased with an AdWords buy — with the competition, and it can’t even offer a cohesive shopping experience within the cover of its own Web site. Brand identity is compromised, the merchant runs the risk of losing the sale, and its search investment diluted — even though the user had intended to purchase said product from Newegg’s site in the first place.

When one cross-applies Newegg’s situation with thousands of other retail sites the picture becomes clear — Google’s search-within-a-site tool is no retail boon; it’s an advertising windfall for Google. It represents an ultimate lack of control over one’s site, which rates among the top concerns of online retailers. Unless you want to feed into that idea of forced democracy, you should stay away. Don’t let a competing brand piggyback on your hard-earned equity, or replace the premier customer experience you designed with one defined for you by Google.

Initial reactions Google’s search-within-search is inciting from major retailers by siphoning traffic, sales and page views are featured in an insightful article by Bob Tedeschi of The New York Times. While analysts consider the move egalitarian in terms of saving users time and energy otherwise expended in navigating a particular site, the payoff is messy at best, Tedeschi says.

Retailer Concerns

A major concern for retailers is that Google will roll out the search-within-a-site across all brands it indexes, forcing wary retailers to actively opt out of the service. Amazon and Newegg no longer have search-within-a-site bars attached to their search results. This seems like an easy thing to do, but Google has also implied that should a retailer ask to turn off Google’s new feature, there is no guarantee that it can retrieve the feature if, down the line, the company chooses to reverse their decision.

Pundits are correct in identifying the search-within-a-site feature as a boon to small, upstart retailers whose Web sites may leave a lot to be desired in terms of aesthetics and organization. However, even then, won’t small sites run the risk of being usurped in brand equity and name recognition by larger companies whose AdWords results shout out in noticeable shaded letters?

Google will continue to be a great partner for retailers — that is, if it stays true to its value proposition and focus on driving qualified traffic to retailers’ online stores.

John Federman is CEO of Guidester, an e-commerce ad network for major brand manufacturers and their online distribution partners.

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