Why Your Merchant Feed And PLA Campaign Should Be Managed Together

A recent studyby CPC Strategy detailing the momentum of Google’s Product Listing Ad (PLA) program further reinforced what most marketers already know: Google PLAs are having a dramatic impact on the paid search industry. Higher click-through and conversion rates on PLAs have proven that a picture is worth more than a few lines of text.  As a result, online retailers are rapidly growing their PLA budgets.

While most marketers are focused on creating killer merchant feeds, it is important to realize that having a great merchant feed is only half the battle when it comes to PLAs. A truly robust PLA program requires close coordination -- even integration -- of merchant feed and PLA campaign management. Approaching merchant feed and PLA management holistically, as one system from end-to-end instead of as two separate functions, is critical to maximizing your PLA campaign success and improving the usability of your PLA campaign.

Before discussing how to make sure your merchant feed supports your PLA campaign, let’s discuss why close coordination of the two is so important. PLA campaigns behave not only like SEM campaigns, but also like SEO campaigns. This means you are not just bidding on a keyword -- you are bidding on a product that Google will match to consumer queries based on the information you provide in your merchant feed. As such, you should regularly update and fine-tune different fields in your merchant feed so your products can rank higher on Google PLAs. Without this close coordination, your PLA campaign will suffer.

With that in mind, let’s examine four strategies for ensuring that your merchant feed supports your PLA campaign.

1.  Add Your Entire Inventory to the Merchant FeedIt’s important to think of products in PLAs in the same way you think about keywords in SEM. Best-selling products behave just like head keywords, while less popular products behave like tail keywords. Currently, many marketers are overly focused on adding only their most popular products to their merchant feed. The flaw with this strategy is that your best -elling products are very likely the same as your competitor’s. As such, competition for these products will be more intense than for less-popular long tail products that can still produce a profit. Just like keywords in SEM, not mining the long tail will lead to missed revenue. In addition to listing every product -- or at least the ones you can turn a profit on -- be sure to use product variation whenever possible. For example, if you sell shorts that come in four different sizes and three different colors, list all 12 variations in your merchant feed. The more specific you are with your product listings, the more likely your PLA will align with consumer intent.

2.  Build Your Merchant Feed with Your PLA Campaign in Mind ­– Google gives you the option to add columns to your merchant feed. Use these columns to add details on the departments, categories and product groupings you will need to make your PLA campaign structure more intuitive and easy to use. Remember that Google uses your merchant feed to match user queries to a specific product. As such, the more data you have on a product, the better chance Google will find and display it to a potential customer. For example, if you are listing a pair of “Page Bootcut Jeans” but do not have a column detailing the brand (in this case, Page), the chances of Google matching the jeans you are selling to a user query drops significantly. By building the list like this to begin with, your merchant feed and PLA campaign will work together from the start. Adding details to your merchant feed will help align your PLAs with consumer intent. In addition to product-related feature data such as brand, material and color, make sure your tax and shipping columns are complete, as these are critical fields when viewing products within Google shopping.

3.   Keep Your Merchant Feed Consistent – If you’re like most retailers, product data found in your merchant feed comes from various manufacturers. This can lead to inconsistencies throughout your merchant feed that in turn decrease the chance of your PLA ads matching customer queries. In order to eliminate the majority of these inconsistencies, focus on normalizing attributes that have multiple values. For example, one merchant may use “azure” to describe a blue shirt, while another simply uses “blue.”  In this case, normalizing the color to “blue” will increase the chances of both shirts matching a user query, as “blue shirt” is a much more common search term than “azure shirt.” In addition to normalizing attributes, remove all potential special characters and standardize the nomenclature for sizes and materials. This will lead to a more streamlined merchant feed, which in turn will aid discoverability.

4.   Keep Your Merchant Feed Accurate and Up-to-Date – Whenever your product catalog, inventory and/or prices change, update your merchant feed as quickly as possible.  Although this can be a time-intensive task, it is absolutely necessary. Failing to do so not only creates a poor user experience for shoppers clicking on your PLA ads, but Google may see this as an attempt to game the PLA system. Marketers looking for cheap traffic might list products they don’t carry or prices they’re not willing to honor. If Google notices this behavior -- even if it's accidental because you failed to update a feed -- they will penalize you by suspending your entire Merchant Center account. While suspended, all the products in your Merchant Center account will not display on Google Shopping, PLAs or Google Product Extensions.

Following these steps will help ensure you have the necessary merchant feed foundation for optimizing your PLA campaigns. Once this foundation is in place, it’s important to have an established performance feedback loop for fine-tuning your merchant feed; the data you collect on your PLA campaign performance should directly influence updates to your merchant feed.  This data is priceless, and further emphasizes the need to fully integrate your merchant feed with your PLA campaign.

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