Google’s Fashion Search Tool is Fraught with Problems

Tom Fogden

Google has introduced a new clothes shopping function as part of its continued effort to be the only website you need.

The new clothes shopping function works by scraping information from different online shops and brands, allowing you to see variations of clothes that match your search terms. Google knows that, “with the number of options online, it isn't always easy to know what's out there,” and aims to solve the problem by providing shoppers with more options. At the moment, the function is only available in English for US-based users.

Perhaps we'll all be buying our clothes via Google's new feature in the near future. But what does this mean for web traffic for online retailers, and will it become yet another problematic way that Google controls the internet?

The Implications of Google's Clothes Search for Online Stores

With the introduction of this new clothes shopping tool, Google is making a pitch to control the way people shop for clothes. On the surface, it looks like a win for retailers – there's your merchandise, in prime position at the top of Google search, ready to click on. Yet, the impact for ecommerce sites may not be so positive.

In fact, the new Google feature could have potentially disastrous results for some ecommerce businesses. Of course, in Google's announcement, it all sounds just wonderful for retailers:

“To make this feature possible, Google indexes and organizes products from over a million online shops, and updates this information regularly. Just as we don't charge sites to be part of the Google Search index, participating retailers appear in this new feature for free.”

Yet underneath the “here-to-help” language of the announcement, there's a cautionary subtext for retail websites. And that's just how much a web user will now be able to do without having to ever actually visit the retail store itself. As Google explains:

“Google identifies popular products from stores across the web and brings them together in a new section on Search. You can filter by style, department and size type, or look at multiple images of a product.”

So, that's browsing the catalog; filtering to your exact requirements, and scrolling through product images. All on Google's homepage, not on your store's page. Does your store provide user generated reviews? Well, don't think of them as unique content on your site anymore, as Google will make these available in its search results, too:

“You’ll also have quick access to reviews in case you need help making a decision.”

All of this has potentially huge implications for traffic to retail websites. Google is putting a vast amount of retail site content in front of Google users, without them needing to leave the search results page at all. It's only at point of purchase itself that a user will actually need to click through to the store website, and that will be small percent of those scrolling through your catalog on Google.

That's a lot of browsing activity lost to Google. With users scrolling through Google's tool instead of your website itself, just think what else they're missing out on – additional deals and promotions; newsletter signup opportunities, and inspiration or impulse buys from seeing other items on sale. Plus, any retail site owner needing to report on traffic stats had better watch out for a potential nosedive.

Does Google Have too Much Control over the Internet?

The pattern described above has already played out in multiple other scenarios on Google. Searching song lyrics? No need to click through to a site that went to the trouble of compiling them – these days, they'll be surfaced in Google's answerbox. It's the same again when you're searching a simple recipe. Want to test your broadband speed? Search to do so and you'll find a speed test on Google's results page itself.

Google is seemingly on a mission to completely control all of our interactions with the internet. Its Chrome browser is the dominant force for accessing the web, making up almost two-thirds of the browser market. In fact, it's so dominant that that Microsoft has completely re-engineered its Edge browser to run on the same source code as Chrome.

Source: StatCounter Global Stats – Browser Market Share

“Google is constantly crawling webpages and indexing them according to a large series of ranking factors,” according to Ben Hall, an SEO Specialist from expertmarket.com. “It looks at content quality, page loading speed, and site authority. All of these factors will determine which product listings are displayed where on the results page.”

As a result, larger, more established brands will have the resources available to optimize their websites and product listings to appear closer to the top of Google's search results pages. Smaller businesses, on the other hand, might find themselves cast out by Google's algorithm.

This, in effect, gives Google huge market control. Say H&M's pages were better suited to the Google algorithm's mores – GAP or Old Navy might suddenly experience a drop in orders. This is all quite natural in the SEO industry, but the market is of course weighted towards brands that can afford experts to help them rank higher in Google results.

And hey, don't forget that Google itself has already partnered with some fashion brands to produce products. It created a smart (as in “connected” rather than “stylish yet formal”) denim jacket with Levi's. Could the first listing for all denim jackets be Google's smart jacket? Maybe not just yet, but stranger things have happened.

Is Google's Clothes Shopping Feature Actually Useful?

The answer to this really depends on how you like to buy your clothes. If you're just after some essentials — white t-shirts, socks, underwear — then it could save you time and money. It could, for example, find brands that you'd never considered looking at before, or help you find a bargain price. However, there are a number of potential problems with Google's system.

Google's search functions, no matter how much they're worked on, will always be imperfect. Will it, for example, be able to accurately and effectively discern the difference between a shearling-lined denim jacket and one without? Or will it be able to accurately identify the differences between European and US sizing?

Google's clothes shopping preview

Perhaps, too, Google is failing to read the room at a time when many consumers are becoming more eco-conscious. So-called “fast fashion” is coming under increasing scrutiny. It is largely dependent on low-paid, low-skilled labor in poorer countries to produce clothes, as well as using vast amounts of materials, water and power to produce cheap quality clothes that may only be worn a handful of times.

Google has the opportunity to promote ethical, sustainable brands — or even match results from sites such as eBay or Depop — to reduce users' carbon footprints. This approach, for the moment, at least, seems unlikely.

Some users, of course, will prefer to buy from some brands rather than others. This could be because of quality preference, known sizing and fit, or simply as a status symbol. Ralph Lauren Oxford shirts, for example, are likely to always hold a level of cultural cache in a way that unbranded Oxford shirts will never be able to match. As a result, some users are likely to bypass Google's clothes shopping feature entirely and head straight for their preferred brand's website.

As far as we can see, Google's new feature, while impressive in its scope and promise, may not immediately change the way we shop. But, if you're an online clothes retailer, you should watch this space very carefully indeed. What's good for Google isn't always what's best for every other business.

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Tom Fogden is a writer for Tech.co with a range of experience in the world of tech publishing. Tom covers everything from cybersecurity, to social media and website builders when he's not reviewing the latest phones, gadgets, or occasionally even technology books.

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