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Google Microformats Will Have Large Impact On Online Retail -- Not All Good

Late last week, Google announced Rich Snippets, where site owners can use microformats to provide additional structured data to Google. This is isn't a big deal for online retail yet, but it will be, in the next 6 to 18 months. Today, HTML markup is about how data should be presented. By tagging elements on a HTML page with standard class names, microformats are about what data mean. Microformats will form the foundation of "Web 3.0", aka the Semantic Web. Google is starting with microformats for people (hCard) and reviews (hReview). It seems clear Google support for the SKU microformat (hProduct) is coming soon, as there's already documentation for it on Google WebMaster Central. What will this mean to online retailers long-term?
  • The first retailers to add hProduct tags to their product pages will enjoy an early sales advantage, as Google will present their products first because of the extra data.
  • The advantage will be short-lived, as large retailers and standard e-commerce platforms will quickly jump on the band wagon.
  • Retailers will chafe at the simplicity of the format. hProduct doesn't encompass shipping, tax, bundled pricing, or even UPC. Argh. When Google miscategorizes or misprices your product atop their SERP, get ready for additional customer service calls.
  • hProduct markup is essentially a product data feed, albeit with limited fields. Google's current product search hasn't gained much traction, but widespread hProduct data will help Google disintermediate the shopping comparison engines.
  • Long term, hProduct markup will increase consumer perception of Google-as-store, eroding weaker retail brands (see "search engines atomize retailer brands", halfway down this post.) Building a strong well-defined brand is key.
  • When Google presents more SKU-centric multi-merchant data on the top left of the page, paid search on the top right becomes more crucial to get your link in front of shoppers. The paid search core competencies --optimal bidding, extensive keywords, and solid "why-shop" copy -- become even more important.
What should online retailers be doing about this today? I'd recommend keeping a close eye for mentions of hProduct on the WebMaster Central Blog. I'd also recommend planning to add hProduct tags to your SKU pages, probably by late '09 or early '10. (Here's the link the Google hProduct documentation again.) For better or worse, this is where online retail is heading, and your marketing and merchandising teams will benefit from being there at the beginning.
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