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Is Conversational Shopping from Google the Next Frontier in E-Commerce?

It’s tough to beat the ease and convenience of shopping in your slippers, from the cozy comfort of your couch. But according to recent news from Google, buying things online should become even easier someday very soon.

At SMX West’s keynote address last week, Google’s Director of Search in Zurich, Behshad Behzadi, confirmed that Google was working on conversational shopping to complement its conversational search features.

“We are working on conversational shopping,” Behzadi said. “We are definitely moving in that direction.” 

This is an exciting development with plenty of implications for anyone selling or buying products online. Here’s what e-commerce pros should keep in mind before the technology takes off.

The Future Speaketh

For some time now, you’ve been able to communicate verbally with Google — either by vocal search or, more recently, by speaking the command “Ok Google,” on Android mobile devices or Chrome for desktop, and then asking questions like “Do I need a jacket tomorrow?” (Seriously, try it.)

Today, according to Behshad, speech recognition word error has dropped to 8%, down from over 20% just two years ago.

“We are working on conversational shopping. We are definitely moving in that direction.” – Behshad Behzadi, Director of Search, Google Zurich

As impressive as the current system may be, it’s still imperfect and prone to glitches, prompting many searchers to just type their queries instead of speaking them. But Google clearly sees speech as the future of search, and continues to refine the technology and add new functions to it.

Which begs the question: What will conversational shopping on Google mean for retailers when it does arrive?


What Is Your Catalog Saying?

While Beshad did not divulge a timeline for conversational shopping searches, he did offer a few examples of how it might be used. He cited dynamic answers to questions like “I want X to be cheaper,” or, “What shops are around me?” as possible applications of the technology.

These scenarios center on the user experience, i.e., the conversation a shopper is having with Google. But what about the results consumers receive — in other words, how can e-commerce outfits stand out and become a meaningful part of the dialog?

We’ve written before about “extreme virtual assistants” — AI-powered computers straight out of a Sci-Fi flick, a la Knight Rider’s KITT or the USS Enterprise’s on-board computer in Star Trek — which would handle all of your shopping needs behind the scenes. Before Google’s conversational shopping tool develops a mind of its own, however, humans will still guide the technology using a graphical user interface.

For e-commerce marketers participating in the early stages of conversational shopping on Google, three predictions come to mind immediately:

1. Retailers will step up their PLA game. Product listing ads are already fueling serious growth for e-commerce retailers: During Holiday 2015, conversion rates for Google Shopping PLAs beat sitewide conversion rates across all devices. It’s hard to imagine that their centrality to e-commerce won’t continue to grow as conversational shopping becomes the norm.

A consumer “asking” Google about a product will probably expect the results he receives to be actual products, not a business that sells what he’s seeking or a news article about it. Consequently, PLAs will continue their rise to prominence in the marketing mix of many retail e-commerce pros. 

2. Retailers will develop new ways to differentiate their brands. With fewer bits of information in front of them, consumers who may be communicating with their devices from across a room will likely make quick, gut-level decisions. One way e-commerce marketers can guarantee a favorable outcome is to invest in their brands.

All else being equal, a shopper is more likely to buy from a vendor she knows and trusts. Strong name recognition — standing out as a reputable provider of goods in a given arena — will go a long way towards ensuring shoppers are talking with Google about your products, instead of your competitors’ items.

3. Pictures will be worth (more than) a thousand words. Eye-catching, distinctive photographs in product feeds and Google Shopping PLAs might become the differentiator when shoppers are navigating purchases with their eyes and ears, instead of just their fingertips. 

Now, there are some very real impediments to snapping Pulitzer-worthy photos for every item in your catalog, which may span thousands or millions of items. Retailers often rely on suppliers when it comes to images, and Google has its own feed requirements. But expect to see more brands experiment with product staging — pairing a dress shirt with a tie or a kitchen utensil with the food it could one day prepare — in their respective PLAs. As Google’s conversational shopping evolves, so too will its feed requirements.

Real-life KITTs or not (fingers crossed), the future will certainly include more natural vocal interactions between humans and computers. And a world where shoppers can buy new shoes while frying eggs for breakfast or commuting to work by talking with their devices will surely benefit retailers.

E-commerce pros should get ready for it now — and all of us can rejoice at the prospect of having one less contributor to carpal tunnel syndrome.

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