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PLAs and the Overlap Between SEO & SEM

Episode Overview: Rising ecommerce sales due to the pandemic and stay-at-home orders are turning ecommerce into a crucial battleground space for businesses and companies to significantly boost their revenue. Google’s recent announcement that it’s offering free product listing ads within Shopping Experience to users is leveling the playing field, eliminating barriers of access and increasing competition. Join host Ben as he speaks with Searchmetrics’ SEO Strategist and Advisor Jordan Koene about the new updates to Google’s product listing ads and what it means for users competing in ecommerce.


  • Google’s announcement removes the pay-to-play model in Google Shopping Experience, offering free PLAs to all users.
  • Users are now able to freely display more supplemental and relevant products to customers and utilize other features within the product shopping experience.
  • The announcement may indicate Google’s attempting to diversify and improve its user experience, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it could also mean Google is getting more competitive with Amazon and Walmart that provide similar offerings.
  • As time goes on, keep yourself updated on emerging developments with Google PLAs, specifically the experience behind paid versus free elements.


Ben:                   Welcome to the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host Benjamin Shapiro. And today we’ll be discussing product listing ads and the overlap between SEO and SEM. Joining me today is Jordan Koene, who is an SEO strategist and an advisor for Searchmetrics. Okay. Onto the show. Here’s my conversation with Jordan Koene, SEO, strategist and advisor for Searchmetrics. Jordan. Welcome back to the Voices of Search podcast.

Jordan:            Hello there, Ben.

Ben:                   It’s been awhile, buddy. How you doing?

Jordan:            I’m doing good. I’m doing good. Yeah. Summer’s in full swing.

Ben:                   Out in Green Bay? Has the snow melted?

Jordan:            It just melted and there’s just a trickling of green outside.

Ben:                   Are you allowed to go outside? They do call it Green Bay.

Jordan:            Yeah. It’s not really that. Well, actually in the summer it is pretty green, but usually not that green, but yeah, it’s been great going outside. It’s good to have a change of pace from being in the house all day, working and living in the same place is never easy.

Ben:                  Well, Jordan, we missed you here in the Bay area and hopefully you’ve been able to fill the time. One way that people have been filling their free time is through ecommerce, a little retail therapy. So today we want to talk about what’s happening in the SEO commerce space and specifically product listing ads. There’s been a lot of changes in that space. Talk to me about what’s new with product listing ads.

Jordan:            Yeah. So this is a little bit of an evolution that’s been taking place with Google. Back in April, they made an announcement that they would be offering free product listings within the shopping experience. So typically the shopping experience was limited to product listing ads, which is predominantly, it’s an only paid, excuse me, experience. But in April they announced in connection kind of to coronavirus that they would be offering free listings in that experience.

Ben:                  So Google started offering something for free, brands can list their products in search without having to pay anything. And that’s a departure. It used to be a pay to play model. Am I correct?

Jordan:            That’s correct. That’s correct. So it used to be pay-to-play model only, and ultimately it’s a great opportunity for folks that are in ecommerce, because if you can optimize your listing feeds and ensure that they’re really well structured, you can really generate more exposure for yourself, especially if you’ve got flagship products that you know have consistently performed really well in the paid experience. You can now show more supplemental products or relevant products as people look at your store, other features within the product shopping experience.

Ben:                  Let me make sure I understand the user experience. When I am searching for a product, let’s name a product here.

Jordan:           Name a product. Let’s go with a grill.

Ben:                  A grill.

Jordan:          Like an outdoor grill.

Ben:                  I’m looking for a Weber grill. Happy summer, everyone. I hope you’re getting outside, enjoying the fresh air. Let’s fill it with some barbecue smoke. One of my favorite things. Okay, I’m going to go buy a grill and my keyword is Weber grills. Love the Weber grills. What shows up, what’s the product listing ad? What’s a regular listing? Do I have to go to shopping to see a product listing ad? Walk me through how this all looks.

Jordan:            Yeah, so essentially you do your search. As you start to navigate into the shopping tab, that’s where typically you have a lot of the listed ads, the paid ads. However, in the all tab or in just your general search tab, you will also have a featured set of product listings, right? Typically it’s the top of the page. It’s kind of like a knowledge panel,

Ben:                  Top 16 Weber outdoor grills. That’s the heading that I see. And it’s a carousel with three images being shown.

Jordan:           Yeah. So you’ve got this carousel with the Weber grills and each one of those is a paid listing. What Google announced in April is that they were going to include free placements within the shopping tab. But what they announced just two days ago is that they’re also going to include free listings or free placements within the main tab, the main search tab, the all tab, which is a remarkable and quite quick transition to allowing free listings in what is probably a strong moneymaker for Google.

Ben:                  So let’s talk a little bit about why, or let’s speculate a little bit about why Google would be doing this. I have a theory, right? You’d mentioned that it was somewhat coronavirus related or the timing was coincidental. About a month before Google decided to make their shopping listings free, Amazon pulled all of their budget out of Google AdSense. They stopped advertising on Google. So my theory, nothing to back this up, I haven’t talked to anybody at Amazon or at Google for that matter is that Google is looking for ways to compete with Amazon. And if Amazon isn’t going to be an advertiser, Google’s going to try to surface the trust product as they can.

Jordan:           I mean, there’s a couple of things here, right? I mean, I think a lot of people like to see the Goliath versus Goliath stories, right? Amazon versus Google. And you may be, Amazon’s trying to pull out their money to make Google feel pain of some sort.

Ben:                 King Kong versus Godzilla.

Jordan:          King Kong versus Godzilla, yeah.

Ben:                 King Kong versus Godzilla. This is King Kong versus Godzilla.

Jordan:          That’s right.

Ben:                 Who are you rooting for, the big G or the big A?

Jordan:          Yeah, I’ll plead the fifth, but on a serious note, I don’t think that this has anything to do with King Kong or Godzilla. I think this has a lot to do with where really Google wants to go with diversification. Like how diverse does Google want the experience to be for users? And is there a better experience if you’re allowed to have free placements?

Ben:                 I don’t buy it for a second. I don’t think that Google is all of a sudden just saying, we’re going to give away this revenue to get more product assortment, right? Cause that’s, what’s going to happen when they’re not charging for people to distribute their product listing ads, more people are going to do that. More brands are going to flood the search results with products. Now Google has more assortment. And I think that Google is looking for mind share if nothing else, that when someone conducts an ecommerce search, they’re going to Amazon first that hurts Google’s business. They want that traffic.

Jordan:          I mean, you’re on to something there absolutely, 100% Ben you are onto something which is Google does want mind share. They want audience. They want people to feel like they are relevant when it comes to shopping. And we know for a fact that Google has spent tens of millions of dollars in promoting their shopping experience. They’ve had PR teams and PR agencies promoting the shopping experience. They’ve done a lot of publishing and writing about their shopping experience. And they’re essentially trying to head off, not just Amazon, but a trend that has taken place in ecommerce, which is that over the last 10 years, the evolution of the ecommerce experience for many providers, not just the technology ones like Amazon, but the retail ones like Walmart has reached a level of satisfaction to users that forces them to navigate directly to those websites. They will have much stronger affiliation to do the search and search behaviors on an Amazon and a Walmart and an eBay than they do on Google itself.

Ben:                Okay. I disagree respectfully. I think you’re wrong. I think Google wants market share and I think they’re competing head to head with Amazon and I don’t think they’re really worried about Walmart, but okay, fine. Have it your way. Talk to me a little bit about how the changes in ecommerce are impacting not only SEO, but also SEM.

Jordan:         Yeah. So there’s some big changes here for, I think the small guy, the small guy being the smaller retailers or ecommerce shops, especially in the COVID world who don’t have a tremendous amount of sophistication around paid ads. Setting up product listing ads is no trivial task. And I think that if I’m a real shop in Northeast Wisconsin, the first thing I am thinking about is not how do I improve my product feeds in Google? It’s just not. And so I really believe that there has to be a way for Google to enable the education and the capabilities of those types of sellers so that they can take advantage of this benefit or this feature. Otherwise you’re not even going to be able to get that traffic.

Ben:                So Jordan, what does that mean for retailers and for Google?

Jordan:         I mean, it means that there’s a lot more experimentation that needs to happen around listing ads and the free experience. It means that we’ll probably see more changes from Google in terms of how they provide this experience and how they probably educate the advertisers around this experience. And so in a matter of just two to three months, Google has already changed this twice pretty substantially. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they change it two or three more times before we get into the holiday peak season. And so stay tuned and keep yourself updated in terms of what Google is doing around product listing ads, but then also more importantly, the experience and the paid versus free elements behind it.

Ben:                Yeah. I do think that there’s a dance there for marketers who are both managing SEM and SEO and it’s confusing. Right now there’s a question of whether I should invest in optimizing my PLAs and getting my content into not only the Google shopping tab, but now that’s a way to get into the universal search or should I be focusing on buying my way to the top of the page? When you think about the return and the value from those two different placements, which one’s more valuable for marketers?

Jordan:         That is a million dollar question, Ben. I’d say that there’s no easy answer, but at the end of the day, my bias is always going to go to the websites that can do an amazing job of getting the first placement. We’ll often see the benefits of that kind of content and technical SEO strategy impact other experiences such as ads, whether it be product based or text based ads.

Ben:                And look, I’ll add onto what you’re saying in that if you can get into spot one, two or three, your conversion rates are going to be very high, right? Your visibility and your conversion rates should be very high and generally conversion rates for organic traffic are much higher than paid. On the flip side, if you’re a brand that doesn’t have a reputation and the likelihood of you ranking if I have an unknown grill company and I’m trying to rank for best barbecues, it’s going to be a long road to hoe before I am at the top of that page. There’s Weber and Traeger and Home Depot and all sorts of other brands that have well established SEO presence that live at the top of that page. I’m going to have to buy my way in to get that visibility, to get that mind share.

Jordan:          There’s no question. And I think that that’s why it’s a hard question to answer because there are some companies that strategically pay their way to success, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no disgrace to using paid acquisition to grow your business. Although most of the time we spent our time talking about SEO. I guess we can give a little bit of credit to our paid friends for a change.

Ben:                  Hey look, half of them do SEO and SEM and hopefully are listening to this podcast. We love you too. Jordan, any last words about the changes in ecommerce and the retail space and the overlap between SEO and SEM?

Jordan:            I mean, the last thing I’ll leave folks with is that we often do see a heightened sense of change in Google during this time period. Usually Google wants to make those ecommerce changes earlier in the year than later in the year, because of the obvious reasons. You start making major ecommerce policy and experience changes as you get into Q4 and you can really hurt marketers and retailers quite significantly because that’s when they make all their money.

Ben:                 All right. And that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Jordan Koene, SEO strategist, and advisor to Searchmetrics. We’d love to continue the conversation with you. So if you’re interested in contacting Jordan, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can contact him on Twitter. His handle is JTKoene, that’s J-T-K-O-E-N-E. Or you can visit his personal website, which is Just one more link in our show notes. I’d like to tell you about, if you didn’t have a chance to take notes while you were listening to this podcast, head over to We have summaries of all of our episodes, contact information for our guests. You can even send us your topic suggestions or your SEO questions, and you can apply to be a guest speaker on the Voices of Search podcast.

Ben:                Of course you can always reach out on social media. Our show’s handle is voices of search on Twitter. And my personal handle is Benjshap B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P. And if you haven’t subscribed yet, and you want a daily stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, we’re going to publish episodes every day during the workweek. So hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and we’ll be back in your feed soon. All right, that’s it for today. But until next time, remember the answers are always in the data.

Jordan Koene

Jordan Koene

Previously the CEO of Searchmetrics Inc, Jordan Koene is an Advisor to Searchmetrics, supporting the thought leadership and innovation. Prior to working at Searchmetrics he was the Head of SEO and Content Development at eBay where he led the development of content and technical improvements for the organization. He is an expert in SEO with over 20 year’ experience in the field.

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