What’s going on with the CSS update?

By Matthew Robson
12th April 2024

CSSs have always been slightly controversial within Google Shopping; a 2017 European Commission found Google to be in violation of competition laws – and so in 2018 Google’s CSS Partner Program was born, with this year seeing even more updates.

The original 2018 update included a 20% price advantage to CSSs in Product Listing Ads within Google Shopping, incentivising retailers to use the CSS.

In light of a recent Digital Marketers Act (DMA) update, Google has once again had to update its CSS policy to stay in line, but this time many aren’t so happy about it.

What is a CSS?

To understand what’s going on with Google and this update, it’s important to know what a CSS is first and foremost.

CSS stands for Comparison Shopping Service, and Google Shopping is one itself. These are sites that compile lists of different retailers offering the same product so that consumers can compare and make sure they are getting the best price.

From a retailer’s perspective they are a great method of advertising and taking up more space within SERPs, increasing reach.

What is the CSS update?

In order to stay compliant with Article 6(5) of the European DMA:

“The gatekeeper shall not treat more favourably, in ranking and related indexing and crawling, services and products offered by the gatekeeper itself than similar services or products of a third party. The gatekeeper shall apply transparent, fair and non-discriminatory conditions to such ranking.”

Google has made updates to its CSS Partner Programme, coming into effect from March 6, 2024. As Google is considered a ‘Gatekeeper’ in this situation, they now allow CSSs to drive traffic to their own Product Detail Pages (PDPs) where previously they could only send the traffic directly to the retailer’s PDP.

In the past, this meant that CSSs could be used to gain an advantage in SERPs without impacting CPCs, as there would only ever be 1 product listing shown within Google Shopping as the traffic was always being sent to the retailer site. Now, however, as the traffic can be driven to the CSS sites instead of only going to the retailer, there is much more competition with CSSs entering the ad auctions.

So since the CSS update, when you look at the Google Shopping feed, users will see three different types of ads:

  1. Retailer advertisers for its own product listing
  2. CSS advertisers for the retailers product listing
  3. And now CSS advertisers for its own product listing

This will result in multiple listings for the same product and brands will now have to compete with CSSs for space, causing unavoidable CPC inflation.

What does this CSS update mean for retailers?

This means that there’s more competition for the ad space, and we’re likely going to start seeing multiple ads for the same products as CSSs start sending audiences to their own websites instead of directly to retailers.

There will also be a knock-on impact on traffic as consumers have more options to click through from the ads.

However, this doesn’t mean that paid shopping campaigns should be stopped – it just means that strategies are going to have to change.

Paid search campaigns can be a great way to increase visibility and increase conversions when done appropriately, and this update doesn’t even necessarily mean stopping working with a CSS would be the right choice.

Although CSSs will now have the option to drive traffic to their own sites rather than retailer sites, not all of them are choosing to do so.

Many popular CSSs have pledged to not take advantage of this update and will instead prioritise relationships with retailers and continue to send traffic to their websites.

If your CSS partner is doing this, there is no significant reason to make any changes to your strategy yet, but it still needs to be a consideration now – brands don’t want to be competing with their own bids and driving up CPCs.

Ultimately, this update is likely to have an impact on paid search strategies moving forwards, so if you’re concerned about how your campaigns could be affected, then reach out today and our expert team will support you in ensuring everything stays running smoothly.

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