[Guide] Get the most out of Free Google Shopping Ads



    Is Google going back to Froogle? - likely crossed the minds of many troupers of the digital advertising business upon the announcement of free product listings.


    No wonder, you could have easily gotten that impression from all the headlines we’ve been bombarded with over the last few weeks. At first glance, it seemed that Google is circling back to the good old days of being a free comparison shopping service. The reality is not as rosy as it is painted, but the shift does make for a good opportunity for retailers to strengthen their sales engine and online presence.


    So, what exactly are Google Shopping's free product ads, where & to whom are they available, and how can online retailers benefit? Here’s our take on it.


    A tidbit about Froogle

    For those of you unfamiliar with Froogle, let’s do a quick rewind: 

    It’s December 2002, Google introduces Froogle - a free comparison shopping service invented by Craig Nevill-Manning. The service continues to function as a free product listing tool until 2012 when Google decides to monetize its eCommerce platform and switches to exclusively paid listings. That’s how Google Shopping, as we know it, begins.


    Table of contents


    The Fundamentals of Free Shopping Listings


    Practicalities - how can merchants benefit?


    Bonus: Other opportunities for free exposure on Google

    Conclusions & Recommended Further Reads

    The Fundamentals of Free Shopping Listings

    What are the free Google Shopping listings, exactly?




    Let’s dissipate any doubts here. The newly announced free shopping listings are product ads that will appear for free inside the Google Shopping tab. And for now - only there. The shopping carousel on the SERP, Youtube, and other shopping placements are still reserved for paid ads.


    It’s probable that the space dedicated to free advertising will be expanded in the future though. What indicates potential expansion? Well, to use free listings you need to opt into ‘Surfaces across Google’ - a catch-all for digital spaces such as Google Images, Shopping Tab, and Google Lens. It could be a hint at where the unpaid ads could appear next.


    Where are free shopping ads available?


    At this point, free product ads have only been launched in the US. The global rollout is planned by the end of 2020. With European countries rumored to be on the list for July.


    Who can utilize this opportunity?


    Any merchant selling physical goods can take advantage of the unpaid product ads. The only exceptions being prohibited or sensitive products that are subject to restrictions.


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    The significance of the Shopping Tab


    Naturally, this would bring us to evaluating the importance of the Shopping Tab in relation to the entire Google Shopping platform. It’s not official Google data, however, many sources report that less than 5% (on average) of the Google Shopping traffic webshops receive originates from the Shopping Tab. 


    While this may seem like not much, don’t let it deter you from taking advantage of the free resource. The introduction of unpaid product listings may have a significant, long-term impact on the eCommerce market and shake up the numbers. Resulting in more users choosing to shop on the Shopping Tab. 


    The next two sections will help us understand why traffic share distribution may shift in favor of the Shopping Tab. Read on!


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    What do free Shopping listings look like?


    On the visual side, free Shopping listings are not very far from the regular paid Shopping ads. They both include the same ad components such as the image, product title, price, and optional info like product rating or the free shipping label. 

    Let’s take a closer look to spot the differences:

    Browsing on desktop:



    • Browsing on mobile devices:




    What differentiates free product listings from the paid ads:


    1. Placement - free listings appear below the paid results that still hold the prominent, above-the-fold space

    2. Visual display - while for desktop the difference between ads and organic free listings is barely noticeable, for mobile - it gets more interesting. Depending on the category Google displays products differently as you may have noticed in the above screenshot.

    3. Compare by store feature - when advertising through free ads Google allows shoppers to compare your product price by store, right from the ad. This small, yet significant difference will definitely weigh in favor of the retailer offering a better price. It also makes for a more shopper-friendly experience, which may contribute to attracting more users to the Shopping Tab.




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    The ‘WHY’ behind free listings & their impact on eCommerce


    To understand the impact Google’s move can have on retailers, shoppers, and the eCommerce market, let’s take a closer look at the potential reasons why Google took a step towards unpaid ads.


    Supporting businesses affected by the COVID-19 induced crisis

    It’s no secret that COVID-19 pandemic has influenced the roll-out of free listings. Bill Ready, the President of Commerce at Google, has admitted that Google decided to speed up the delivery in hopes that it will help struggling businesses to stay afloat during the tough times. 

    We covered how Google and other big brands reacted to the covid pandemic in detail in one of our previous articles.


    Strengthening Google’s position against Amazon 

    Google and Amazon have been battling for eCommerce dominance for years. In fact, unpaid product listings were ‘invented’ as a part of a long-term strategy for competing with Amazon. That gives retailers a good reason to believe the free product ads are here to stay - even long after we’ve forgotten all about the coronavirus.

    Lowering the threshold for new merchants


    The easier it is to get started with advertising on Google, the more merchants will jump on board. Google may not be making big bucks on these new merchants right from the start. However, it’s plausible that with time retailers will start utilizing the paid advertising options, looking for a more prominent exposure. 


    Data, because data is power


    With data becoming the currency of our times, introducing free product listings is a very smart move on Google’s side. More retailers showcasing their products on Google Shopping means more shoppers enticed with a wider choice of products. And the two combined mean more valuable data for Google to grow and develop its eCommerce platform and other products.

    What free shopping ads mean for the eCommerce world?


    If we look at the reasons, we will see what could be expected next. So, what could the introduction of free listings mean? Let’s sum it up.


    For Merchants


    • More visibility online - for free
    • Tougher competition (due to increased number of merchants appearing on Google Shopping)
    • Increased importance of the data feed quality (as bid is no factor for free listings)
    • Easier transition from brick-and-mortar to online (especially for retailers whose sales have been devastated by the virus outbreak)


    Alex Harmon, senior director of partnerships at Adlucent, forecasted in his statement to Mobile Marketer: “This is a positive development for retailers in the short term, as they can expect to see a lift in volume of [about] 4% from their Google Shopping channel. Any support during COVID-19 is welcome for retailers"


    For Google


    • More shoppers - enticed with a richer assortment of products
    • Long-term revenue increase - many new merchants will eventually start utilizing paid options for more prominent exposure
    • Stronger position in the battle with Amazon
    • Increased popularity of the Shopping Tab (driven by expanded range of offers, ‘compare by store feature’ and the publicity triggered by Google’s announcement)


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    Practicalities - how can merchants benefit?

    Getting started with Free Shopping Listings


    Getting started with the unpaid ads requires only a few steps. What you need to do differs depending on whether you’re an existing GMC (Google Merchant Center) user or if you’re completely new to Google Shopping. We’ve covered both scenarios below.



    Not necessary:

    • Google Merchant Center account
    • Product Feed 
    • Google Ads account


    Existing Merchant Center & Shopping Ads users: 

    Most merchants are opted into the ‘surfaces across Google’ by default. In case you haven’t opted in yet, you may do it by going to: 

    “Growth” >  “Manage programs” > “Surfaces across Google” card




    Voila! That’s all you need to do to get started.

    Retailers new to Merchant Center 

    Can join today and Google Ads account is not required. The process is seamless and includes a few steps:

    Step 1: Set up the Merchant Center account.

    Step 2: Opt into the ‘surfaces across Google’ program (during Merchant account creation or anytime after)

    Step 3: Upload your Google Shopping Feed


    All set!


    To help get things going Google also decided to start cooperation with PayPal. According to Google’s statement, allowing merchants to link their Paypal accounts to Google Shopping will help speed up the onboarding process.


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    Get the most out of Free Shopping Listings - retailer’s checklist:


    To help merchants get the most out of free Shopping listings, we put together a quick checklist:


    1. Opt into the surfaces across Google in your Merchant Center account

      Without this, you won’t have the possibility to start utilizing free listings
    2. Act fast to get ahead of the competition

      If you are a merchant selling internationally and have the possibility to ship products to the US, start utilizing unpaid shopping listings now with Google Shopping US. This will allow you to gather valuable learnings about this young project and lay the groundwork for the time when free shopping listings become available in other parts of the world.

    3. Optimize your pricing strategy

      The free shopping listings are geared with the comparison by store feature, which makes it easier for buyers to identify the most attractive offers. If you aspire to drive sales through the unpaid, organic product listings, you need to take a critical look at your pricing strategy and identify products that may need a new price tag.

      To make this process easy you can reach for a price monitoring solution. It will help you identify who else is offering the same products at what price, as well as identify re-pricing opportunities that could be beneficial for your business.

    4. Revise your advertising product portfolio

      Are there any low-margin items in your store you’d rather not spend your advertising budget on? You can advertise them via free listings! It’s a no-risk strategy that may actually turn out very profitable in the end.

      According to some studies, many shoppers end up buying a different product than they clicked on (even up to 66%). This means that while your low-priced, low-margin items may entice shoppers to visit your store, they may even end up buying other higher-margin products from your store.

      Note: If you want to use different sets of products for paid Google Shopping ads and different for the free listings - simply create 2 feeds. In Google Merchant Center you will choose the destination (surfaces across Google) at the feed level.

    5. Optimize your feed for greater exposure & more sales

      Make sure your product data is in the best shape possible. This will ensure your products are shown for the right searches. The starting point would be making sure your shopping feed is error-free.

      Read on to learn the key feed optimization tactics that will help your ads stand out and convert better.


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    Optimizing your product feed for free Shopping ads

    Since free shopping listings on Google have more in common with paid shopping listings than not - the feed optimization process is also very similar. With the exception of a few areas that lose their significance when dealing with free listings. An example could be setting up custom labels for bidding optimization - a great way to increase profitability of paid ads, that won’t play in the success of your free listings.

    With that in mind, we have compiled a list of high-impact feed optimizations that will help you drive results for your unpaid Google listings. For a more extensive list that also covers optimization tactics for paid Google Shopping ads reach for 7 Tips for Google Shopping Feed Optimization [EXPERT Level]



    Product Titles


    Product titles play a big role in determining which user searches will trigger your ads. The title attribute is critical not only to Google’s matching algorithm. Next to the image, is also the most noticeable part of your ad. A specific and accurate title is a greater chance to give shoppers a nudge to click on your product.


    Let’s take a look at ground rules to stick to when optimizing titles for better performance:


    • Place important information first

    Google will show as much of your product title as they can, but it will often be shortened. Make sure you put the most compelling information at the beginning of your product titles.

    • Use your search query performance data to inform your changes

    Use a Search Terms report in Google Ads to see what the highest performing queries are and what ended up landing your conversions. Search console (organic results) and Google Trends may be additional sources for insights. 


    • Follow Google's Requirements for Product Titles

    Google has strict requirements for product titles. Check the most important title requirements here.


    • Approach each vertical individually

    There is certain data that is more valuable in certain verticals than others. Here’s an example of how an optimized title structure could look like, depending on the product category:




    We’ve covered Google Shopping best practices for product titles extensively in our other article.


    Before we jump to the next high-impact area of your product feed, let’s take a quick look at a case study to understand the importance of the product title better:





    This just goes to show how product title is one of these feed attributes that when enhanced have an immediate impact on the performance of your ads. See the full case study here


    While the quoted case study has been done on paid listings, there should be even greater of an impact with free listings as we exclude the bid as an influencing factor.


    Ready to get started with title optimization?


    The first step should be keyword research. Here’s a quick list to help you get started:


    • Perform searches on Google 
      • Start from broad searches and go more specific little by little. 
      • Look at the text ads you find - get inspired by the wording in the headlines.
    • Search terms report in Google Ads

    • Google Keyword Planner


    • Google Trends




    For more insights check out Creating Compelling Google Shopping Product Titles [Practical Guide].


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    Advertising product variations


    Another area you should put your focus on when optimizing free product listings is how you approach product variations. Many merchants make the mistake of not differentiating their variants in the ads. Don’t be one of them! Instead, bring your ads to the forefront by ensuring accuracy and consistency.

    Ground rules to keep in mind when advertising product variations:


    1. Don’t use the parent image for all product variations

      Avoid ad ‘duplicates’ & inaccurate images as these mistakes can cost you conversions. For example, displaying an orange shoe for ‘adidas sneaker blue’ search term is not going to work miracles for your CTR, nor conversions.


      To make sure you get your images right, make sure to use the variant image when mapping your product feed.


    2. Use item_group ID to merge variations into 1 listing in the Shopping Tab

      This ensures a smoother shopping experience and therefore makes your ad more appealing for shoppers


    3. Be specific with item attributes

      For each variant make sure that the title, description, and price reflect the specifics of the variation. This will result in showing your ads for more relevant searches and in turn, better conversion rates.


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    Enticing Images


    Being an online retailer you just cannot overlook the significance of high-quality visual representations in the era of image search and shoppable images. In fact, image is the very first thing a potential customer will notice when browsing on Google Shopping. Selecting the right images for your product listings will set you on a path to success. After all, we only get one first impression!




    Data Talks


    There was a social experiment conducted around how people react to images with very interesting results. Participants were presented with shopping ads with both lifestyle images and plain images of a clothing item itself. Out of the random group of people tested, 82% answered that they would be more likely to click on a shopping ad first if the image was of someone wearing the product rather than of the product by itself.


    So, investigate what works best for your brand: product images or lifestyle images. It’s gonna pay off.


    Recommended practices for setting up images on Google Shopping:


    • A/B test your images 
    • Try lifestyle vs plain product image 
    • Take care of the basics: size, quality
    • Unique image per variation
    • Don’t include any promotional text
    • Include additional images


    Learn more about optimizing product images for Google Shopping here.

    Measure the effectiveness of your free product listings


    No optimization strategy is complete without a way to measure the impact of your changes and the overall results of your ads. When it comes to the unpaid shopping listings, there are 2 places you can review the data. Let’s start with the one that requires no set-up:


    Google Merchant Center 


    Your Google Merchant Account is the 1st place you can check for insights on how your free ads are performing. Access the performance report by selecting “Performance” and then “Dashboard” in the left navigation.


    The downside of this reporting tool is that it’s quite limited and only shows you paid and unpaid clicks. 




    Google Analytics 

    For a more comprehensive overview head to Google Analytics. Before you can enjoy your detailed performance report, you will need to take some steps to ensure the tracking is working correctly. 




    The initial challenge that you will encounter is that your free listings results will be lumped together with “organic traffic” making it impossible to accurately measure the impact of free shopping ads. Luckily, there is a solution to it!




    You will need to use product URL tagging to get detailed data in your Google Analytics to distinguish organic from free product listings.



    Step 1: Add UTM tags to the landing page URLs in your product feed. In DataFeedWatch you can visit the ‘Edit values’ tab for the ‘Link’ attribute in the mapping panel to make this change:



    Step 2: Make sure your Google Ads account is set to auto-tagging. At the same time make sure the ‘allow manual tagging overrides for Google Ads’ option is unchecked in your Property Settings in Google Analytics.


    property-settings-manual-overrides-1Source: ZATO PPC Marketing


    Note that your paid Google Shopping clicks are being processed through Google Ads, while your unpaid clicks from Surfaces across Google are not. So, if you’re also utilizing the paid Google Shopping option, ensuring the setup described above is crucial. Without it, your Google Shopping paid clicks wouldn’t be processed correctly in Analytics.


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    Bonus: Other opportunities for free exposure on Google

    With all the buzz around the free shopping listings, it’s easy to forget about other opportunities for advertising your business and products for free. Let’s refresh our memory on these!


    Ad Credits for SMBs 


    What is the program about?


    Free credit commitment is part of Google's multi-step approach to help small and medium-sized businesses in the pandemic era. Google has pledged $340 million in ad credits for its platform in support of small & medium businesses. 


    The credits can be used throughout 2020 on any Google Ads channel from Search to Display, and YouTube. All the campaign types are available. It’s worth mentioning the ad credit only applies for future spending until December 31st 2020.


    Who qualifies?


    Initially, Google had said small and medium-size businesses would be eligible if they had been active advertisers since the beginning of 2019. They would also need to adhere to Google Ads policies. They have provided further details and clarification since then: advertisers need to have spent with a Google Ads account directly or through a partner in 10 out of 12 months in 2019 and in either January and/or February of 2020.


    Thus, if the ads account was active on Google Ads from March of 2019 through February 2020 it is still eligible for these credits. Brand-new accounts as of 2020 and those who didn’t spend anything this year, will be ineligible.


    Google has a designated team working on identifying Merchants who qualify for the free ads credits program.


    What do I need to do?


    No need to take action. Google will notify you if your business is qualified for the program, along with the information of the amount of credit you’ve received. 

    Some of the qualified accounts started seeing credits late May. The credits will be introduced in stages over a period of several months.

    Keep an eye out for it!


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    Google My Business


    Considering the ever-growing competition on Google, many businesses focus on paid advertising to ensure they get found in the sea of competing offers. This may lead to missing out on some of the free, easily-accessible tools. With all your PPC efforts, using free tools such as Google My Business may seem redundant. But it’s not!


    What is Google My Business?


    Google My Business is a free tool for businesses to manage their online presence across Google, including the digital surfaces of Search and Maps. It also uses location based technology to increase your chance of being seen locally. 


    In addition, with a Google My Business listing you can also share a depth of other information that could be helpful to a potential buyer, such as reviews and opening hours. Some of this is exceptionally important during Coronavirus, such as whether you offer delivery on products.


    Why use Google My Business?

    • Free exposure on Google
      Do we really need to convince anyone? Google My Business adds your brand to Google Search and Google maps which can increase your online visibility. Additionally, businesses that verify their information via Google My Business are likely to be perceived as “reputable” by potential customers.

    • More information for potential buyers
      Provide your potential customers with info such as reviews and opening hours, products, whether you offer delivery (especially important during pandemic). This sets a professional brand image right from the start and sets a good tone for further interactions with your brand.




    How to best utilize this resource?

    • Ensure you provide complete data: including category, business hours and photos is essential.
      According to Google: “Businesses that add photos to their Business Profiles receive 42% more requests for directions on Google Maps, and 35% more clicks through to their websites than businesses that don’t.”.


    • Post via Google My Business: reaching your potential customers with relevant updates and offers right when they are seeking information. You can utilize this opportunity to:
      • Share current promotions
      • Promote your upcoming events
      • Give exposure to your top products or highlight new arrivals
      • And much more!

    If you’d like to know more, Whitespark has put together a comprehensive guide through Google My Business posts


    How to get started?

    Complete your profile here


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    Conclusions & Recommended Further Reads


    Making Google Shopping more accessible at a time when businesses around the world have been forced to transit brick-and-mortar retail to online is an important shift that will likely have long-term impact on eCommerce. If you’ve been considering trying out Google’s unpaid options for advertising, remember - there’s no time like the present! Being quick to make use of new opportunities such as free listings is crucial in today’s digital world if you aspire to stay at the forefront and beat the competition. 


    If you enjoyed the read, here are some more articles you may find interesting:


    1. The 10 Most Common Google Merchant Center Errors and How to Fix Them
    2. 7 Tips for Google Shopping Feed Optimization [EXPERT Level]
    3. Creating Compelling Google Shopping Product Titles [Practical Guide]  
    4. An Introduction to Using Google Text Ads for eCommerce
    5. Automate Google Search Campaigns Using a Product Feed