A new modification to Google’s organic search results risks catching online retailers between a rock and a hard place. On their Webmaster Central blog , “in time for the holiday season”, Google announced support for the ‘rich snippets’ for shopping sites. Now, e-tailers can provide Google with prices, availability statuses, and product reviews for their offerings so that Google might include that information in the snippets of text that make up organic listings.
An example screenshot Google provided for the search query [office lava lamp] looks like:
Notice that this result, from Amazon.com, includes this extra information, saying that the product costs $14.99, is in stock, and has been rated about 3.5 stars (out of 5) from 17 reviews.
Google suggests two ways to provide them with this information: (1) using a data feed of the sort that some merchants employ with Google’s Product Search or (2) adding markup code directly to your website to indicate which data are prices, which are product reviews, and so forth.
Though this feature seems like it might facilitate the process of comparison shopping, hastening sales to the benefit of both the buyer and the seller, a cursory examination of the ‘rich snippet’ format suggests that this might not be the case.
Google recommends the Merchant Center feed as the preferred means of providing this data to ensure product prices, availability, and reviews will reflect the most current information. In the example above that Google provided, the information for Amazon.com’s rich snippet very likely came from such a data feed, since Amazon’s offerings appear in Google Product Search. However, Google’s screenshot said the price for an ‘office lava lamp’ was $14.99, but actually clicking on the link in their blog post in order to do a search for that query on Google brought up a rich snippet that said $19.99 (See below). Clicking through to Amazon’s website, the landing page said the product was $21.95 (plus taxes, shipping and handling, as applicable).
I guess the most appropriate question to ask here is ‘Cui bono?’ Who benefits from Google showing incorrect information to searchers? No one I can think of.
The other, less-recommended option for supplying information to rich snippets is to markup the information on your website to make it easier for Google’s spiders to determine which bits of your pages represent what information. (Of course, it also allows everyone else in the world – including your competitors – to do the same. How handy it would be for your major competitor to go through the laborious process of indicating on every product page which items were in stock and how much each cost, just so that you could go hire The Search Agency to spider their site on a weekly basis and report to you any big price markups, price markdowns, or major inventory problems they were having.)
Of course, retailers have a third option, which is to simply leave Google to their own devices to get the information they want. This approach may prove to be the hardest option to tolerate of all. Google claims that the data feed option means that rich snippet information will be “updated quickly”, while if you mark up data on your site “it may take a few weeks after providing data for rich snippets to be shown”. But leaving Google to scrape a non-marked-up site might mean rich snippets that are even more out-of-date than that.
In a search I performed on August 18, 2010 for the queries [prime minister of australia] and [australia prime minister], Google.com and Google.com.au (Google’s Australian website) claimed the Prime Minister was Kevin Rudd. Of course, Mr. Rudd was replaced in late June by Julia Gillard. Using the ‘Feedback’ link, I alerted both Googles that this information was incorrect. But now, months into Ms. Gillard’s term, they still claim that the Prime Minster is Kevin Rudd, as this recent screenshot below shows:
Google’s ‘Also try’ and ‘Searches related to’ features suggest searching for “kevin rudd”, “john howard” and even “new zealand prime minister”, but not Australia’s actual prime minister, Julia Gillard. So, if Google chooses to include ‘rich’ information in your snippets without your assistance, don’t be surprised if the information they provide is horribly out-of-date and your feedback goes unanswered. [UPDATE: Sometime after this post was published, barely 5 months in her term in office, Google.com and Google.com.au finally admitted that Ms. Gillard is the prime minister of Australia.]
Perhaps Google should include a timestamp on the information they show. So, when they say that Australia’s Prime Minister is Kevin Rudd, they could include a comment immediately after to the effect of “(info last updated 15 June 2010)”, or whenever it was that they gathered that data. That way, when a searcher sees your lava lamp listed for $14.99 on Google, but $21.95 on your website, they’ll know that the problem is Google’s fault and not yours.
Or perhaps Google could simply give merchants the option to insist that rich snippets are not shown for their own listings at all. In my opinion, that would be the best option of all.