SEO is a given for online marketing. Or is it? Raghbir Rana of Wunderman Thompson Commerce explains why search engines are no longer king.

For many years, the role of search engines in digital shopping journeys has been virtually unchallenged. So dominant is the role search plays as the major gateway between the web user and whatever they are looking for online that its importance in product discovery has come to be accepted as a given.

And that has had a profound impact on how digital retailers approach the task of promoting their goods and their brand online.

An entire sub-industry of digital marketing has grown up around search. Its two most famous disciplines have become part of the everyday vocabulary of 21st century business – Search Engine Optimisation, or SEO, the art of crafting web pages so they index as high as possible in search engine results, and Pay-Per-Click, or PPC, a type of advertising that places paid-for ads on search results pages in response to certain search terms.

It’s a lucrative business – SEO alone is forecast to be worth $80bn a year by 2020. And Google by itself accounts for 3.5 billion searches a day. With these kinds of figures, it is easy to understand why some companies have been estimated to spend as much as 81% of their digital marketing budget on SEO and paid search.

However, we have recently found evidence that we may need to dampen down the hype about the role search plays in e-commerce. When it comes to how shoppers typically look for products to buy online, search engines are no longer king.

Amazon weighs in

While search engines used to be the first port-of-call for online shoppers, Amazon is becoming the go-to place that consumers use to find out more information on products. We found that just under half of shoppers said they used search engines for information such price, availability and reading reviews. But that fell short of the 56% who said they used Amazon – and with the expected increase in Prime membership we would anticipate Amazon to continue its growth in this share.

There are also signs that, if anything, the role of search in digital commerce could diminish further in the future. While use of search engines to look for products was fairly consistent for shoppers aged 25 and over, the youngest age group 16 to 24-year olds (which captures Gen Z) showed less of a tendency to use it.

As a result, Amazon is becoming a major disruptor in the SEO market, which is ultimately changing the way brands approach their SEO strategy.

What does this mean for brands?

Brands and retailers shouldn’t abandon their SEO and paid search campaigns completely. If half of all online shoppers still use search engines to find products, this remains a channel they need to keep a focus on.

But it does suggest that it might be time to rethink the balance of digital marketing budgets and strategies, and certainly that companies can no longer assume that strong SEO will lead to high visibility for their brands and products. As well as Amazon, other marketplaces like eBay, Rakuten, Etsy and so on also scored highly on product search, with 34% of consumers naming them as a regular starting point for their shopping journeys. Most marketplaces, through their vast assortments and product offerings, are now attracting more customers than many retailer and brand sites.

The message is clear: consumers increasingly see digital marketplaces as the go-to destination for looking up products they are considering buying.

This amplifies the importance of having a robust product information management (PIM) platform in place that supports rapid and convenient multichannel listings. It also suggests there is nowadays at least the same amount of value in optimising for Amazon as there is for search. Is it time we started seeing investment switched from SEO to Marketplace Optimisation or even Amazon Optimisation?

Aside from search engines and marketplaces, the other channels that returned significant results for how commonly they are used for product discovery were brand websites and retailer sites.

The fact that brand sites are used by almost a third of online shoppers demonstrates there is still plenty of value in brand building and driving traffic to your own website. When people know what they want, a good proportion are happy to go straight to source, cutting out the search engines and market places alike.

What is particularly interesting about this is the fact that it’s a trend most obvious amongst the Gen Z group. This may not be enough to suggest that brand provenance is enjoying a digital renaissance with younger shoppers, but it certainly validates the role of