Nearly a year into his job heading up commerce at Google, Bill Ready has made it his mission to democratize online retail.
Ready has overseen a series of moves aiming to widen access to Google’s platform for online sellers, particularly for smaller sellers who might have been priced out of the paid listings that previously dominated Google Shopping.
In April, Ready announced that sellers would be able to list their inventories in Google Shopping for free. In June, Google expanded free retail listings to its general search engine. Then in July, the company announced that its Buy on Google feature — where consumers can complete a purchase directly on Google — would be commission-free, and welcome in partners Shopify and PayPal, with hints of more to follow.
In an interview, Ready explained that those moves had been part of the vision that he brought to Google in January when he assumed the role of president of commerce, but the timetable sped up rapidly with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the widespread closure of physical stores.
“You had a decade of ecommerce growth happen in the last six months,” Ready said.
“We had been talking about these things prior to my joining, but then certainly when the pandemic happened we wanted to make sure that we were supporting the ecosystem, supporting consumers, that really gave us a lot of reason to accelerate,” he said.
And he left little doubt that the move toward free listings and zero commissions is part of a larger strategy that won’t soon be reversed.
“These were not temporary changes,” Ready said.
After Google made listings in Shopping free, it began seeing a dramatic increase in clicks, which disproportionately benefited smaller sellers who were new to the site or who had maybe only put a few items on the site through paid listings, but could now add their entire inventory at no cost.
“Often times those were the ones that weren’t able to make all of their product available and discoverable,” Ready said.
He encourages sellers of all sizes — but especially smaller ones — to upload their entire inventory to get it in front of Google’s massive audience.
“The first thing I’d say is if they’re not doing that today they’re missing out on a big opportunity,” he said.
Sellers can add their inventories directly through Google’s Merchant Center or through one of its partners like Shopify, which is the preferred method for many smaller shops, Ready said.
There’s a strategy at work there. Ready explained that Google views its partnerships with third parties like Shopify, PayPal, and BigCommerce as crucial to its support for small sellers, a key element in its effort to level the playing field of online retail.
“For many of those small and midsized sellers it was critically important for them to be able to connect via the tools they’re using,” Ready said, hinting at future announcements of new partnerships.
“We’re opening it to the broader ecosystem, so certainly as we go into 2021 we’ll expect to have more partners coming,” he said.
So where exactly does Google see itself within the ecommerce universe? As Ready tells it, Google is aiming to help retailers maximize their reach, but is not trying to insert itself between buyers and sellers, which explains moves like eliminating commissions for transactions completed through Buy on Google.
“We are not a retailer. We do not have aspirations to be a retailer,” he said. “We’re not here to operate a marketplace.”
“We think about it as helping to connect buyers and sellers at scale, but in a way that is open to the ecosystem,” Ready added.
Ready describes Google’s ecommerce mission as going back to “first principles” for the company. The same could be said for the business proposition. After offering up free listings for retailers on Shopping and the main search engine, and then eliminating commissions for Buy on Google, the company is still left with a robust advertising business, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of its collective revenues.
So even if the majority of the listings on Shopping are free now, many retailers are still boosting their profile with paid advertising.
“Our primary monetization has always been ads. It’s the largest part of our revenue overall,” Ready said.
“The new thing here is that our shopping experiences that provide deeper engagement with consumers, we’re opening those things up to have the free plus paid,” he added. “Advertising is still a great engagement tool for retailers, and there’s a lot of opportunity there.”
Engagement is a core aspect of how Ready views ecommerce. In discussions with numerous retailers, he said that he hears again and again about the challenges of locating and connecting with customers in the digital world. For hybrid shops that have brick-and-mortar operations, that challenge has become more acute in a year of pandemic when more consumers are shopping online out of necessity.
So Google continues to work to improve its ability to discern what shoppers are looking for when they search on its site. Ready also noted that consumers are showing more “affinity” for small and local businesses, so it has added search filters to enable sellers to locate retailers in those categories.
“We want to deepen the relationship,” Ready said. “One of the things that you’ve seen us try to make very clear is that the tools that we are offering are really there to help retailers not only gain a transaction but gain a customer.”