It's not quite the same as calling every photocopy a Xerox or every digital photo alteration a Photoshop, but Amazon has practically become synonymous with online shopping. What started out two decades ago as an online bookseller has grown into the go-to-place for buying just about anything from the comfort from your browser.
But another tech giant isn't content to sit back and let Amazon dominate the e-commerce world. Google--which itself has a become a genericized brand for Web searches--is eyeing the online shopping world as well. And it's managed to build up its own online shopping power thanks to a variety of apps and services.
Google's shopping tools
Google lacks Amazon's warehouse space and inventory. But it has its own data empire and a few other tools it can exploit as it takes on the shopping behemoth at its own game. Here are the ways Google is looking to get its cut of your shopping dollars.
Google Shopping Express: Google's most recent--and highest-profile--effort brings same-day delivery to select markets. Buy something online from the likes of Costco or Stapes in the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, and parts of Los Angeles, and Google Shopping Express will get that order to you the same day. (In addition, Google added next-day delivery to most of Northern California, covering the Fresno-Clovis area north to the Oregon border). Just last month, Google teamed up with Barnes & Noble to add same-day book delivery to Google Shopping Express's bag of tricks, competing in the very same retail sector where Amazon made its reputation.
Shopping Express competes directly with Amazon's Same-Day Delivery, which has a larger footprint than Google's offering. After adding another batch of cities this summer, Amazon's same-day service is now available in 12 markets.
In Google's version of same-day delivery, the company will deliver items purchased through its site from chains like Target and Walgreens as well as some regional speciality stores, such as Nob Hill Foods in San Francisco. You shop via the Google Shopping Express website or mobile apps for iOS and Android. Signing up for Google Shopping Express gets you six months of free membership; otherwise each order is $5. The membership is really a way to get you enrolled, as Google has yet to set a regular monthly fee for users after the trial period ends.
Sponsored shopping results: While Google's main search results are generated by an algorithm, shopping results are a different story. Products featured in the shopping section of Google search results are there because merchants pay to have them appear there. It's more akin to browsing a mall than getting the standard ten blue links from Google search.
And that's not necessarily a bad thing. After all, advertising and human curation are how we often discover what to buy. It would be difficult for any search engine to quantify whether one toaster is better than another.
That's not to stop Google from trying, though. In July, it began adding product ratings to shopping search results, pulling down those ratings from multiple sources including merchants, third-party aggregators, editorial sites, and users. It's the another part of the puzzle that Google is trying to piece together where it's the one-stop shop when you need to buy something.
Google Wallet: Google's digital payment service, Google Wallet, has been around since 2011. We may not be paying for everything with our phone the way Google envisioned back then, but the company's mobile payment offering still plays a key role in Google's ability to hook more customers on its commerce offerings.
That's because Wallet is no longer just for payments, growing into a repository for all your loyalty programs and gift cards. You can scan in any of your gift cards to save the balance information inside of the app. Google Wallet will monitor your location in the background and send a push alert when near one of the stores for which you have a loyalty program. It is useful to have this at the ready, although you may also find it a little on the creepy side.
A lot of different companies are looking to make their mark in mobile payments--including Amazon, which just launched Amazon Wallet. Still, Google Wallet enjoys a head start here, not to mention its ties to Android phones capable of making mobile payments. (At present, Amazon Wallet merely collects all your loyalty and gift cards in one place.) So give Google the edge on the mobile payment front for now.
Google Now: Much of what Google is trying to accomplish comes together in Google Now, which is the company's context-based suggestions tool. It is front and center on Android, especially for those using a Nexus device or the Google Now Launcher.
For shopping, Google Now generates a card for you to follow when you place an order through Google Shopping Express or even when you make another order where the shipping info appears in your email. Google Now also mines your search history for items that you may be looking to buy. Say if you were searching for a specific video game, Google Now may ask you later if you still want to try and find it. This gives Google another shot at getting you to buy from one of its preferred partners or even to use its home delivery service.
Delivery via drone?: Remember late last year when Amazon floated the idea of home delivery via drone? Apparently, Google didn't think that idea was so crazy: According to a report last week from The Atlantic, Google has spent the past two years working on a drone delivery program of its own.
Even with two years of work behind it, Google's drone program is in its early stages: Google still needs to test a safety system for its drones, for example. And the biggest opportunity for delivery-by-drone may not be in retail, but rather for ferrying medicine and other supplies to remote locales. Still, delivery to consumers seems like a natural offshoot of this program. If nothing else, it's another instance where Google may wind up beating Amazon at its own game.
The full Google experience
If all this sounds purely theoretical--the drone part, especially--consider my recent experience when I went to buy a wireless router.
I searched for a cable modem with Google Shopping and got several results. Google listed Newegg as a trusted retailer and had one of the lower prices. For comparison, I also found the modem was available through Google Shopping Express, meaning I could order it and have it on hand the next day. In this instance, I went with Newegg and the lower price tag.
As I placed my order, the site asked if I wanted to participate in the Google Trusted Stores Program, which meant Google would offer purchase protection in case there was some issue with the transaction. It was another free service that gave Google my data, but I decided that it was worth trying out.
Not long after placing my order, I received an email confirming my purchase, a notification card appeared in Google Now with details of what I bought and a link to tracking information.
So in the span of ordering one piece of hardware, Google had multiple opportunities to draw me into its retail operations--from sponsored links to the offer of next-day shipping to a notification card on my phone keeping me up to date on my order. That's an impressive array of services being put to work for just one purchase.
Still, in some ways, the shopping process through Google is more convoluted than simply buying something from Amazon. For example, Google's shopping engine makes you sift through multiple retailers, including eBay listings. Because Google uses various retailers the price may vary widely, as I found out when pricing modems.
Amazon, by comparison, controls the entire process. It can offer a low price and multiple shipping options--including same-day delivery in more areas. It is even more tempting if you have an Amazon Prime membership. For $99 a year, Prime members can get an item sent off to them in two days with just one mouse click.
Google has the pieces in place to build a strong e-commerce network with its access to so much data and the ability to hook you in a deeply to the company's existing services. For many people, Google already powers email, Web searches, photo storage, and music services. Using Google to buy things could be an extra layer of convenience if the company can smooth out the process.