Last week, ahead of Black Friday & Cyber Monday, an article in the Financial Times highlighted a Google product first rolled out in the US a year ago: Google Showcase. While the journalist makes no direct complaint about the technology giant, the nature of the story and those quoted makes clear the implication; the big G is up to its tricks once again.
For anyone not familiar with Google Showcase, it’s fairly simple: You search for an object or product and, as well as your standard list of results, a generation game-style panel of images slides out at the top of your browser. Flagged as sponsored content, they represent a selection of retailers who have opted to pay for prime placement. And, like the familiar orange tinted ad banners most of us are accustomed to, it’s only when we click through that a profit is made, with money from the retailer being passed to Google.
In short, it’s advertising Jim, but not as we know it. But that’s not really what the article focuses on. No, the big problem here is that Google might not be offering shoppers – wait for it – the best deal.
I hope that wasn’t too much of a shock for you. But yes, it seems the warm cuddly folks at Google have finally shown their true colours. We were fine with their – at best – lax approach to data and internet cookies, not fussed by their aggressive tax avoidance and positively apathetic to their servers being used bythe NSA, but this, it seems, really is the final straw. Not only will Google extract a profit from the retailer when an unknowing browser clicks on the showcase image but also, should the fool actually make the purchase, they risk paying over and above the price they might have had they gone elsewhere!
This is a ridiculous argument. Certain shops have always seen fit to charge more than others for the same products. Take a certain large department-store beginning with H – to the best of my knowledge it has always imposed a significant mark-up on its goods, most of which could all be found cheaper elsewhere. But their customers know that what they’re paying for includes no small amount of pomp, a premium service and the added benefit of not having to leave the rarefied bubble of Knightsbridge.
The last point may seem facetious, but it’s this same self-preservation instinct that compels us to do as much of our festive shopping online without diving into the crowds of the Westfields, Bluewaters and even Arndales of this world. By contrast, traditional bricks-and-mortar stores have used their physical presence to offer the customer service and extended warranties previously only found in said department stores to assert their relevance in the face of just such internet retailing habits like Showrooming.
Google Showcase then, has simply taken the value-added browsing convenience of the department store and applied it to the world of online, matching it with the slightly upmarket price tag. It’s a bit like having Paul Whitehouse’s tailor from the Fast Show explain internet shopping for you.
Japes aside, what I find truly odd is that the main charge being levied at Google by “Silicon Valley lawyer” Gary Reback is that “Google could make more money from merchants who paid to have their products featured”. What? Regardless of any controversial policies the company may have elsewhere, there is no getting away from the fact that this is a private company, with investors and shareholders that provides countless services for free. Their entire business model has, until relatively recently, relied on being able to milk advertising for all it’s worth. Their only real obligation is to use that technology to make money and either re-invest it or return it to their dependents.
While it might be fair to say that absolute clarity on the nature of Showcase is welcomed, there’s no duty on their part to give us the best deal on anything. Similarly, we’re not obliged to use Google. Apart from alternative search engines like Bing and Yahoo, there are a host of online marketplaces and dare I say it – actual physical shops on the high street to choose from – the latter of which will all be competing for your money and asserting themselves in the face of online competition. And, as the article itself points out, “Google Shopping, an alternative service, always turns up the same product for a significantly lower price”, so Showcase isn’t even the only option on Google.
Ultimately, out of a number of potentially controversial policies the company has adopted in the past, Showcase isn’t the one to get worked up about. If our love of e-convenience and lazy avoidance of hustle and bustle is killing the high street, we shouldn’t be surprised that it might also have repercussions online. We also shouldn’t damn a company giving us so much for free trying to make money. What will be interesting though is whether Showcase actually works. If it is able to prove its worth to users and in turn, retailers and Google, then it will be here to stay. Or, if consumers vote with their feet for lower prices over convenience, Showcase will fail and it will go the way of RSS Reader, Wave and Catalog onto the Google Scrapyard.