For many years now, the role of search engines in digital shopping journeys has been virtually unchallenged. So dominant is the role search plays as the major gateway between the web user and whatever they are looking for online, that its importance in product discovery has come to be accepted as a given.

And that has had a profound impact on how digital retailers approach the task of promoting their goods and their brand online.

An entire sub-industry of digital marketing has grown up around search. Its two most famous disciplines have become part of the everyday lexicon of 21st century business - Search Engine Optimisation, or SEO, the art of crafting web pages so they index as high as possible in search engine results, and Pay-Per-Click, or PPC, a type of advertising that places paid-for ads on search results pages in response to certain search terms.

It’s a lucrative business - SEO alone is forecast to be worth $80bn a year by 2020. And Google alone accounts for 3.5 billion searches a day. With these kinds of figures, it is easy to understand why some companies have been estimated to spend as much as 81% of their digital marketing budget on SEO and paid search.

However, in our latest Future Shopper market survey, we have found evidence that we may need to dampen down the hype about the role search plays in ecommerce. Conducted across eight countries and involving 15,000 digital consumers, this year’s study is our biggest yet to investigate online shopping behaviour and consumer attitudes. And what we found was, when it comes to how shoppers typically look for products to buy online, search is no longer king.

AMAZON WEIGHS IN

We asked digital consumers to pick a maximum of three digital channels which they typically use when they have a specific product in mind and want to do something like compare prices, check availability, read reviews or so on. Overall, just under half (49%) said they used search engines for this purpose. But that fell short of the 56% who said they used Amazon.

What’s more, this figure for Amazon would have been much higher but for two countries where the marketplace giant is nowhere near as dominant a presence as it is elsewhere. In the Netherlands, where less than 10% of total online spend goes to Amazon, only 13% of shoppers said they searched for products on the site. In Czech Republic, where Amazon’s share of the market is even less, this dropped to 4%.

By contrast, in half the countries we surveyed, more than two thirds of consumers said they used Amazon for product search, with the UK just falling short on 62%. In the US, Germany and Spain, four out of five shoppers reported doing so. By contrast, the highest figure for search engines was 60% in the Czech Republic.

There’s more. In every country apart from The Netherlands and Czech Republic, more than half of our survey participants said they used Amazon to check product reviews and pricing even when shopping on other sites and in store. Also, 42% of digital shoppers told us Amazon made it easier than anywhere else to find the products they were looking for, more than double the next best answer (other marketplaces).

There are also signs that, if anything, the role of search in digital commerce could diminish further in the future. While use of search engines to look for products was fairly consistent for all shoppers aged 25 and over, the youngest age group 16 to 24 year olds (which captures Gen Z) - showed less of a tendency to use it (44%).

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR BRANDS?

Clearly, it is not time for ecommerce brands and retailers to abandon their SEO and paid search campaigns completely. If half of all online shoppers still use search engines to find products, this remains a channel you need to keep a focus on.

But it does suggest that it might be time to rethink the balance of digital marketing budgets and strategies, and certainly that you can no longer assume that strong SEO will lead to high visibility for your brands and products. As well as Amazon, other marketplaces like eBay, Rakuten, Etsy and so on also scored highly on product search, with 34% of consumers naming them as a regular starting point for their shopping journeys.

The message is clear - consumers increasingly see digital marketplaces as the go-to destination for looking up products they are considering buying. This amplifies the importance of having a robust product information management (PIM) platform in place that supports rapid and convenient multichannel listings. It also suggests there is nowadays at least the same amount of value in optimising for Amazon as there is for search. Is it time we started seeing investment switched from SEO to Marketplace Optimisation or even Amazon Optimisation?

Aside from search engines and marketplaces, the other channels that returned significant results for how commonly they are used for product discovery were brand websites (used by 29% of digital consumers) and retailer sites (27%). The fact that brand sites are used by almost a third of online shoppers demonstrates there is still plenty of value in brand building and driving traffic to your own website. When people know what they want, a good proportion are happy to go straight to source, cutting out the search engines and market places alike. What is particularly interesting about this is the fact that it’s a trend most obvious amongst the Gen Z group (39%). This may not be enough to suggest that brand provenance is enjoying a digital renaissance with younger shoppers, but it certainly validates the role of brand.com.

FURTHER READING

With more and more shoppers adopting digital marketplaces as their go-to destination for looking up products to buy, we examine the 8 critical challenges facing brands in the world of eCommerce in this new report “Brands and Ecommerce – What the Future Has In Store”.

Download Brands and eCommerce

Raghbira Rana 500x500

Written by Raghbir Rana

Senior Consultant

Raghbir plays a lead role in running our marketplace practice across Europe, drawing on many years working for Amazon, to help brands manage and accelerate their performance on Amazon and other marketplaces.

A note about the Future Shopper 2019 survey

Research for this Future Shopper 2019 report was conducted by independent research consultancy Censuswide. A total of 15,188 consumers, who shop online at least once a month were surveyed, across 8 international markets, led by UK and US.