In May 2020, Google delighted online merchants in the US by launching free product listings on the platform. This meant that even budget-conscious retailers could suddenly gain exposure without spending a single penny. Not a shabby deal!
Fast forward to today, and Google's free organic listings have been rolled out worldwide, helping cash-strapped brands get noticed by shoppers.
But what impact did this major change have on online retail, and how exactly can marketers capitalise on it?
Let's find out!
What is “Surfaces across Google”?
First, we should get familiar with a term closely associated with unpaid product listings: Surfaces across Google (SaG).
In short, Surfaces across Google refers to all the different Google properties where your listing might organically appear, including:
- Google Search
- Google Shopping
- Google Images
- Google My Business
- Google Maps
- Google Lens
Where exactly you’ll show up on SaG depends on factors like the products you sell, whether you have a physical store, the composition of your product feed, search relevance, and so on.
What do organic product listings look like?
This also depends quite a bit on the product category and where in Surfaces across Google the product appears. But here are a few examples to illustrate the concept.
You’ll show up in different ways based on the user’s search, filtering options used, etc.
If you have a physical store, you might show up in local searches for relevant product queries:
Google My Business
Similarly, with the right product feed setup, you can even get your products listed directly in your Google My Business property:
By carefully managing your product feed and your GMB property, you can increase the likelihood of showing up for any of these SaG results. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
What has been the impact of free product listings?
The main purpose behind adding organic product listings—aside from helping Google compete with Amazon—was to diversify shopping results while letting merchants surface relevant products without breaking the bank.
So how did SaG listings do?
While there’s no definitive study about their impact, all signs point to Google’s organic listings making a big difference, especially for merchants without existing paid ads.
Lift in engagement with Google Shopping
As one would expect, the Google Shopping tab got a boost in the number of users interacting with it. More specifically, Google reported that “Shopping tab” clicks grew by 70% while impressions jumped by 130%.
Growth in organic exposure for merchants
Once free listings launched globally, even those merchants who previously paid for ads saw their unpaid clicks grow to account for up to 15% of their total traffic. Early on, UK merchants who sold to US customers saw a steady rise in clicks on their free listings, as exemplified by this case showing number of clicks by date:
After the global rollout, many merchants saw their international presence explode in multiple countries similarly to this individual case (graph shows number of free clicks by country):
Whilst numbers vary from merchant to merchant, it’s clear that most retailers experienced a noticeable growth in the amount of unpaid clicks. For those without prior paid presence, the impact has arguably been the most impactful.
Free listings: An evolving concept
It’s important to note that unpaid listings aren’t just a binary switch that was flipped once in May 2020. Google’s organic listings have been continuously evolving:
- From a US-only launch to going global by the end of 2020
- From limited presence in the Shopping Hub to appearing for the entire range of Surfaces across Google (including traditional SERP results).
In January 2022, Google introduced auto-tagging to all free product listings, making it much easier for merchants to track their organic product performance in e.g. Google Analytics. (Prior to this, merchants had to manually set up UTM parameters to achieve this.)
To stay up to date, keep an eye on Google’s Merchant Center announcements log.
It’s clear that Google is betting big on the organic shopping experience and is likely to further extend its reach in the foreseeable future.
How to set up for Surfaces across Google?
“Sounds great, where do I sign up?” you might be wondering.
If you have an existing Google Merchant Center (GMC) account, it may actually be a matter of ticking a single box. If not, you’ll first have to set yourself up on GMC.
Let’s look at the process of getting your products listed organically in Surfaces across Google.
1. Check if you’re eligible
To sign up for a Google Merchant Account in the first place, your business must be eligible. This means you'll need at least one of the following:
- A functioning ecommerce site, with pricing information, stock visibility, and an ability to process online orders.
- A physical store that’s properly set up to show up on Google My Business.
Finally, you’ll need a properly structured product feed to increase the chances of appearing across more properties.
2. Register a Merchant Account in GMC
Once you’ve got your primary setup in place, it’s time to sign up for Google Merchant Center. This is quite straightforward, since Google helpfully guides you through each step.
Generally speaking, you’ll need to do the following:
- Set up a Google account if you don’t have one already.
- Fill out your business information.
- Select your primary checkout type:
- On your site
- Directly on Google
- In a physical store
- Tell Google about any third-party platforms and integrations you use.
- Set up your email and notification preferences.
At this point, you should be a registered merchant. You’re now one step closer to getting those free organic clicks.
3. Decide on the type of organic listings you’re aiming for
This will depend on whether you have a local brick-and-mortar shop or a purely online presence.
Physical shops have the following additional requirements to get listed:
- Google will check whether you comply with the “Local inventory ads policies.”
- You’ll have to go through a local inventory verification process.
(On the upside, you won’t have to maintain any online checkout, set up digital payment processing, etc.)
If you have an ecommerce store, you should decide whether you’re happy with standard listings or want to aim for so-called “enhanced listings.”
Enhanced listings must meet higher standards of data quality. In addition, Google accepts only product data feeds submitted via GMC for enhanced listings. So it’s not enough to just use a structured data markup.
In return, enhanced listings allow you to incorporate richer product details and will show up in additional places like YouTube, etc.
We strongly suggest creating and submitting a proper, well-optimised product feed. Not only does this give you more and better exposure, but it’s easier to maintain or update in the future.
4. Set up a product feed
This part gets a bit technical and requires a deeper understanding of data feeds.
For a standard listing, it’s enough for your feed to contain just a few basics like product ID, title, link, image, and price.
But for enhanced listings, you’ll need to maintain additional details outlined by Google.
If any of the above is overwhelming, don’t fret! You can outsource this unenviable task to a third-party provider like Intelligent Reach. Data feed management companies specialise in creating, optimising, and maintaining product feeds across multiple platforms and in compliance with all requirements.
5. Opt in for “Free Product Listings”
You’re finally ready to get those sweet free clicks.
At this point, it’s just a matter of ticking a box:
- Navigate to “Growth” in the left GMC menu
- Select “Manage programs”
- Tick “Show your products in free product listings on Google”
Note that until December 2020, Google officially referred to the program as “Surfaces across Google” inside GMC:
Since then, it's been renamed “Free (product) listings” to make it more consistent.
But the primary functionality remains identical.
7 tips to improve your organic product listings
You did it! You’re now set up to get free exposure by showing up in Surfaces across Google. So where do you go from here?
From this point on, you want to get as much traction from the unpaid listings as you possibly can. Here are 7 best practices to help you along.
1. Focus on SEO
This should go without saying, but the key to winning a better organic presence on Google is to get your SEO in order.
If you’re already a paid Google advertiser, you’ll be able to access a wealth of data via the “Search terms report” for your products.
If you’re just starting out, you can do traditional keyword research or browse Google’s Shopping Hub for clues on what terms are typically used with your types of products. What product categories and filters do you see? How do your competitors describe similar items?
Incorporate your learnings into your product titles, descriptions, tags, and so on. This improves the chance of your listing appearing for the most popular search queries.
2. Experiment with pricing
Google provides plenty of pricing insights. Use these to tweak your listings and make sure your products are competitive.
The “Price competitiveness report” tells you exactly how competitors price their products, so you’re in a better position to set your own prices.
Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean underbidding everyone. But seeing where your products fit into the broader picture helps you develop a more informed pricing strategy.
3. Solicit customer reviews
Getting customers to review your products has multiple benefits.
Not only do positive reviews lend third-party credibility to your store, but they also increase the likelihood of your listings showing up for certain “Google Shopping” filtering options. For instance, selecting "Sort by: Review score" will only expose product listings where reviews are available in the first place.
4. Stand out with sales and special offers
Use the attribute called “Sale price” in your product feed to your advantage. Products marked this way may show up with tempting “Sale” and “Price drop” tags:
If you’re lucky, your site might even get its own dedicated “Shop Sales by Store” presence on Google:
5. Work on your product images
“A great product image paints a thousand words of product description,” as the popular saying goes. It’s true.
In many situations, your product image may end up being the primary selling point. At the very least, high-quality images catch attention and give your products the best possible first impression.
6. Enrich your product feed
We’ve already seen that an attribute-rich feed is necessary to appear in Google’s “enhanced listings.”
But it’s more than that.
Your product feed is a critical component of your entire organic listing strategy. The feed you provide to Google determines which product categories you show up for, how your listings look, the accuracy of displayed item information, and more.
In short, without a complete and optimised feed, none of the above tips will have the desired impact.
7. Keep your feed in great shape
On a related note, remember that getting your feed up and running isn’t a one-off task. Things change all the time. You’ll launch new products and retire some old ones. You’ll frequently adjust dynamic information like pricing and availability.
Your feed must follow suit. Otherwise, you risk a whole range of issues, including:
- Mismatch between your Google organic listings and your landing pages
- Inaccuracies like outdated links, wrong product categories, etc.
- Lost opportunity to capitalise on sales and discounts
To avoid this, you should introduce a process to keep your feed up to date at all times.
This can be done either by a dedicated internal resource or by using a third-party product feed management company.
Outsourcing your product feed management makes sense for many reasons. First, it frees up your company’s time to focus on more important projects. Second, by using a specialist third-party provider, you guarantee that your feed is always as error-free, updated, and optimised as it can be.
Get started with a free product feed review
At Intelligent Reach, we help merchants and brands create, maintain, and optimise their data feeds for platforms like Google Shopping.
We offer a free data audit. It gives you the insights you need in order to gain visibility on Surfaces across Google and elsewhere.
To get started, simply fill out a short contact form and we’ll get back to you within a day.