Android 6 “Marshmallow” & SEO Series: Google Now Cards Featuring Merchant Data

How might Android Marshmallow's new features impact the future of mobile search? In part two of a three-part series on the topic, contributor Cindy Krum discusses Google Now Price Alerts cards and Visually Similar Products.

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Google Now is Google’s predictive search solution that tries to anticipate a user’s needs before the user searches. It presents information in the form of “answer cards” on your mobile phone, your smartwatch or (if you have downloaded the plugin) on your desktop computer.

The previous article in this series discussed Google’s Private Index and how it is beginning to impact searchers, especially with Google Now and Now on Tap. This article will build on that. This is the second article in a three-part series, and it will help explain how Google’s Private Index will allow notifications to searchers when the price of a product they are interested in decreases.

The article will also dig into Google’s ability to understand images, to help them identify competitive products other than the product presented in Google Now. In a previous version of this column, we referred to these as “sponsored” Now cards, but we’ve since received clarification from a Google spokesperson:

“Google Now cards currently include no sponsored content at all — the triggering and ranking of what surfaces as Google Now cards is completely organic. So while the cards do take users to shopping results which may have sponsored content and the information [that prompts Google to display the cards] (on price drops, for example) does come from merchants, the Now cards themselves are not sponsored.” 

More Mobile Advertisements

If you have not noticed it, Google has been adding a variety of different types of advertisements that are especially prevalent and persuasive in the mobile interface. These sponsored results can be presented for queries about flights, hotels, movies, TV shows and some products. They are driven by feeds, rather than PPC bidding, and are less visually distinct from the organic results below them.

These sponsored results are likely a way for Google to regain traffic that is otherwise being lost to in-app searches. By putting the information directly in the search result, they are making it easier to find and consume, thus preventing the searcher from switching to an app.

In that same vein, it appears that Google is testing commercially-oriented Google Now Price Alert cards in Google Now. Until recently, Google Now cards have all seemed passive and organic, but that might soon change.

The popularity of Amazon Prime has led more and more successful searches to begin in the Amazon platform (app or web) rather than in Google, so this might be exactly what Google needs to regain the product-oriented shopping traffic.

Google Now Price Alert Cards tie Google Now in with Google Shopping feeds, which merchants participating in AdWords submit to Google. They notify users when an item they have previously viewed has decreased in price.

From a business perspective, this makes sense for Google, but it has other benefits, too. Google Shopping is great for receiving this mobile traffic from Google Now cards because it has a reliable mobile interface that makes mobile shopping easier for users across a broad range of devices.

It’s also good for e-tailers because it makes mobile e-commerce more approachable for a wide variety of sellers that may not be set up for mobile web access or secure payment.

How Do Google Now Price Alert Cards Work?

Google is storing information about all users’ cross-device behavior to a Private Index, and this includes information about web interactions like shopping or browsing on Google Shopping (and potentially other e-commerce sites, too).

With this information, they are able to trigger a “Price Alert” in Google Now or Now on Tap. They can tell from a user’s Private Index that they have visited the page, and they know from their Google Shopping feeds that the price on the item that they viewed has dropped.

The image below shows a Price Drop notification from Target in Google Now. (Target sells products on their website, but products are also displayed on Google Shopping.) The Google Now Price Alert cards preview the previously viewed product and the new price, with a link to a purchase page in Google Shopping.

From the Sponsored Google Now notification, you can click on the product to go to it directly in Google Shopping, or you can click on the lower link that says, “Compare products from other merchants.” That takes you lower on the same page, to a list of “Visually Similar Products” you can buy in Google Shopping.

GoogleNow Shopping Price Drop Notification

It is unclear exactly how the user tracking works, but it is likely just based on a user’s web browsing history. This Google Now card could have been triggered in a more conventional way with cookies stored from Google Shopping, but that information would be harder to access across multiple devices.

(Something like this could theoretically even be triggered by product schema on the page, though it could not be found when I looked through the source code.)

From an SEO perspective, this Google Now card is interesting for a couple reasons. First, because it is one of the first times we have seen the ability for a company to influence whether a Google Now card is generated — by submitting and regularly updating their product feed. While the merchant isn’t specifically paying for the card (because the card was based on previous browsing history and was only triggered when the price dropped), it is still apparently part of the Google Shopping experience in which sellers pay to participate.

Here’s how a Google spokesperson describes it:

“To use the example [above], the price drop card for a dress would only show to someone who’s been researching the particular item, so a card letting them know about the price drop would be likely useful. But a merchant cannot pay or otherwise sponsor the card to surface.” 

It is clear that Google is trying to build out this kind of predictive search functionality with Android Marshmallow and Now on Tap, so leveraging Google Shopping feeds could be great for driving site traffic and conversions — and important for SEOs to at least be aware of, even if it does not fit squarely into the “organic” side of digital marketing.

What Is The Relationship With Image Crawling?

The inclusion of “Visually Similar Products” in the landing page (aka “related products”) is also very interesting.

What is noteworthy about this aspect of this interaction is how Google is determining the “Visually Similar Products” to include. It appears to be done with the same matching learning algorithm that is being used on Google Photos to categorize and group photos (like the example from the previous article in this series, which showed a search for “my pictures of dogs”).

Remember, the machine learning algorithm automatically groups the photos based on the date and time, as well as location — all of which it can get from the metadata in the image file. But it is also uses image recognition and machine learning to group the photos based on what is featured in the picture, as you can see in the image below.

Google Photos Catigorization

With that in mind, looking at the two groups of “Visually Similar Products” below, you might notice a connection: Both searches started with a text query for “blue dress.”

The click in the first example was on a “blue dress” for which the main photo featured a mannequin, so all of the “Visually Similar Products” show dresses on mannequins. In the second example, the initial search was still for “blue dress,” but the click was on a product whose primary image featured a human model, so all of the “Visually Similar Products” are on human models.

Visually Similar Products from an Item Whose Primary Picture is on a Mannequin

Visually Similar Products - Mannequin

Visually Similar Products from an Item whose Primary Picture is on a Human Model

Visually Similar Products - Model

In terms of SEO strategy, this could have some very real implications for the product images you are using, especially if the products you are selling look a lot like products or brands that get more searches than yours do.

Aligning your product photos with the product photos of trendy or high-demand items could move your products into a shopper’s consideration set much more quickly — especially in the case of soft goods, where fit and finish are harder to determine online and there are no regimented technical specifications or guarantees to compare.

It is also useful to note that the inclusion of “Visually Similar Products” could limit the marketing value of these commercially-oriented Google Now cards, given that competitive items are available and ranking in these results. A user who responds to a price drop notification would probably also be persuaded by a similar item for a lower price — even if it is from a different retailer.

For example, the $9.99 dress from ModDeals looks nearly identical to the $13.98 dress from Target, and it could easily be purchased instead with only one additional click in the interface.

To combat this kind of customer loss, free shipping deals with branding and loyalty programs could become increasingly important, since the only thing keeping a user from shopping with another retailer may be the final price or their level of confidence in your brand and services.

The future of commercial content in Google Now cards is still up in the air, but it seems very likely that Google will eventually include some type of Sponsored result in the Google Now interface (if not one, then possibly many). Google’s basic business model relies on advertising dollars, and search traffic lost to Google Now, compounded by the threat of Amazon Prime, makes this an obvious next step.

E-Commerce SEOs who have never considered a Google Shopping feed may have to include it in their strategies or begin working with other teams to ensure proper integration and exposure in Google Now. Beyond that, with or without Google Now, optimizing for image recognition algorithms appears to be an entirely new but relatively cheap way to drive online sales — with concepts that are similar to SEO, but based on shapes, colors and patterns.

SEO is changing, and the mobile platform seems to be accelerating these changes, so it is exciting to see what new skills top-notch SEOs will need to compete in the future.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Cindy Krum
Cindy Krum is the CEO and Founder of MobileMoxie, LLC, a mobile marketing consultancy and host of the most cutting-edge online mobile marketing toolset available today. Cindy is the author of Mobile Marketing: Finding Your Customers No Matter Where They Are, published by Que Publishing.

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