This week, Bing launched an attack campaign against Google, called "Don't Get Scroogled". It's a dig at Google Shopping, the product of Google's recent transition from the free-to-list product search offering to a paid inclusion, ad-based Google Shopping model. Bing insists "Scroogled" is about Scrooge, rather than implying that people are getting "screwed by Google," as the word would suggest, and as the Urban Dictionary definition would imply. Right.
Either way, that makes little difference, as the message would essentially be the same. Is Bing right? Are users getting "Scroogled" by Google? Let us know what you think.
Google's move to the paid inclusion model of Google Shopping has certainly not been without its controversy. Most of this, however, has stemmed from businesses who aren't happy with the move. Bing's campaign is painting the whole thing as harmful to consumers (go figure, given Microsoft's participation in efforts to pressure regulators in antitrust matters regarding Google). But do users really feel they're being harmed by this model?
"Specifically, we want to alert you to what Google has done with their shopping site right in time for Christmas," explains Bing's Chief Marketing Officer and Corporate Vice President, Mike Nichols. "Instead of showing you the most relevant shopping search results for the latest coffee maker you’re looking to buy mom, Google Shopping now decides what to show you – and how prominently to display what product offers they show -- based partially on how much the merchant selling the product has paid them. Merchants can literally pay to improve their chances to display their product offers higher than others inside of Google’s shopping 'search,' even if it’s not better or cheaper for the consumer. The result of this new 'pay-to-rank' system is that it’s easy for consumers to mistake an ad for an honest search. That’s not right, it’s misleading. It’s not what you expect from search, and it’s not how we at Bing think search engines should help consumers get the best prices and selection when shopping."
"In short, we think that too many shoppers who use Google for their shopping searches are getting 'Scroogled' when they should be getting fair, honest, open search. It’s like Ebenezer Scrooge met Google Shopping. We think consumers should be aware what they’re seeing when they’re shopping online and to understand, without any hidden text or traps, the fine print of what their ‘search engine’ actually searches."
Despite these comments, Bing was almost immediately blasted in the tech media for its own Shopping results.
"Bing, after all, recently partnered with eBay’s Shopping.com," writes Frederic Lardinois at TechCrunch. "While Bing previously allowed merchants to submit their own feeds for inclusion, the company now says that it is 'not accepting new merchants for this program.' Instead, Bing says, merchants should work with Shopping.com. One of the reasons for this according to Bing is that 'paid offers will be highlighted throughout Bing Shopping, including search result and product pages.'"
You don't say.
Similarly, search industry vet Danny Sullivan covered the story under the headline, "Bing Attacks Google Shopping With 'Scroogled' Campaign, Forgets It’s Guilty Of Same Problems."
Lardinois also shares a statement from Bing's senior director, Stefan Weitz: "Bing includes millions of free listings from merchants and rankings are determined entirely by which products are most relevant to your query. While merchants can pay fees for inclusion on our 3rd party shopping sites and subsequently may appear in Bing Shopping through partnerships we have, we do not rank merchants higher based on who pays us, nor do we let merchants pay to have their product offers placed higher in Bing Shopping’s search results."
Google has said that ranking is based on a combination of relevance and bid price.
"Google now wants to break the rules that made it a trusted brand," says Nichols. "They argue that the difference between answers and ads is shrinking. 'After all,' they recently said, 'ads are just more answers to users’ queries.'”
"Shoppers visit the site they have used for years, conduct what they think is a 'search,' and get a set of rankings that look like the objective results Google delivers elsewhere," he says. "Meanwhile, the lawyers at Google are now calling it a 'listing.' They even call out – hidden behind a disclaimer or buried in a footer -- 'Payment is one of several factors used to rank these results.' Consumers are potentially getting a raw deal because 'relevance' is now influenced by how much Google is getting paid, not just by things that matter to shoppers. We, of course, accept enhanced listings and advertisements just like other search engines. But at Bing, we just feel Google should distinguish ads clearly from search results and not use payment as a factor in ranking shopping search results.'"
On Google's regular search results pages, when Shopping results do appear, they are clearly marked as "sponsored". It is true that any disclaimer is a little less obvious when you actually go to Google Shopping, the destination. This disclaimer Nichols mentioned is found if you click on the link at the top of Shopping search results page, which says, "Why these products?"
It probably doesn't help Google's case that there is a set of more traditional-looking search ads at the bottom, which say something like, "Ads related to waffle irons".
But on the other hand, I'm not sure consumers have ever cared so much about whether or not product search results were paid inclusion or not. It would be interesting to know how many shoppers are starting their product searches from the Google Shopping destination anyway. If you search for "waffle irons" on Google.com (which seems like a far more likely scenario than starting from google.com/shopping - even if you search Google for "Google shopping" you're taken to google.com/ads/shopping), the top results are ads, followed by a set of results from Google Shopping, which are clearly marked as sponsored. The first organic results take you to places like Amazon, BestBuy, Bed, Bath & Beyond, etc.
Google, of course, maintains that the paid inclusion model works better for quality of results.
"We believe that having a commercial relationship with merchants will encourage them to keep their product information fresh and up to date," said Sameer Samat, Vice President of Product Management, Google Shopping. "Higher quality data—whether it’s accurate prices, the latest offers or product availability—should mean better shopping results for users, which in turn should create higher quality traffic for merchants."
It's worth noting that Google is already losing shopping-related searches to Amazon (which has not participated in the new Google Shopping, but is usually easily found in top Google search results for products).
We've discussed the issues businesses have with Google Shopping multiple times in the past. That's one thing. As a consumer, do you think you're betting "Scroogled" by Google Shopping? Will you use Bing Shopping? Let us know in the comments.