Sunday, 30 October 2011

Google's half-hearted attempt at selling eBooks

After much fanfare and many delays, Google finally opened its eBookstore in the UK earlier this month. When it was announced way back in 2009 that Google Editions was to be launched, many were expecting an Amazon killer; however in that time the Kindle has come and conquered and even the iBookstore has opened. So now that its been renamed and launched, what exactly does the eBookstore offer?

Well, nothing out of the ordinary really. It comes across as almost being half-hearted; something that's very difficult to level at Google normally.

The site itself is a very Google looking, clean and simple ecommerce store. There are some nice features, but nothing that would justify such a delay. This may suggest that it wasn't the store that held Google back but negotiations with publishers.

Let's take a closer look at how Google has gone about the business of selling eBooks.

The homepage is unmistakably Google. It carries the company's clean, unfussy and accessible approach to the web and this theme continues throughout the site. Above the fold is dominated by a central banner that advertises featured eBooks as well as the different ways that you can consume Google's eBooks.

The site is split into two main columns, the largest of which advertises new and notable eBooks in JavaScript carousels. The left hand column is the primary navigation with your personalised account block, a list of top-selling titles and then the primary list of eBook categories.

It's all pretty unremarkable really.

Google practically owns the web and so launching any new product, app or site will be a relatively painless affair for them. However Google Wave and Buzz are fresh enough in the memory to prove that this isn't enough to guarantee success. With Amazon dominating the eBook market I had expected Google's approach to its eBookstore be more, well, considered.

With many of Amazon's Kindle editions being cheaper, why should you buy from the eBookstore? There is no value proposition on the homepage or product pages and ultimately nothing to entice me away from Amazon. Compare this to Kobo, which is taking a more aggressive approach to its positioning. On its homepage you're greeted with:

Over 1 million FREE eBooks available. Search for your FREE read today!

Immediately there is at least one reason to choose Kobo over Google or Amazon.

This almost hubristic approach from Google is one reason why Wave and Buzz failed to take off. The only remarkable thing about these initiatives was just how unremarkable they were.

When Google+ launched, it was faced with staring down the behemoth that is Facebook and the company's approach changed accordingly. Circles and Hangouts were truly innovative and before Facebook retaliated, it gave users a genuine reason to sign up. It's a shame this attitude wasn't extended to its eBookstore.

The eBook pages continue this underwhelming theme, although there are some nice features. The layout is similar to Amazon's but includes much more information above the fold.

At Packt, we continually survey customers and website visitors to understand what it is they want from our product pages and what it is that convinces them to buy from us. The number one feature that users want is actually quite simple and obvious: a detailed product description. Google is obviously asking the same questions as this description sits right at the top of the page:

Compare this to Amazon's approach, which treats customers almost as if they've made the decision to purchase before reaching the product page:

The second most popular factor that our customers highlight as convincing them to buy is customer reviews and again, Google has made this a key feature of its page. These appear above the fold and are clearly an important factor in its conversion strategy. 

Interestingly, Google has positioned the +1 button underneath the star rating at the top of the page. This acts not only as Google's own rating system for users but perhaps reinforces its importance as a key element in search ranking. Note that there are no links or widgets for Twitter or Facebook anywhere on this page; how significant is that?

What I found frustrating about Google's product pages is the lack of navigation away from it. This tactic is often taken to focus conversion from that page, however I see this as a bit of an oversight. Amazon, and most ecommerce websites, enable users to view other categories from its product pages. Not Google though. While a related titles carousel enables users to view similar eBooks, the only links to a category are right at the bottom of the page; and that takes you to the categories the book is listed under, not a full listing. Google seems to have prioritised navigation among its other apps and websites over categories in its store. 

Let's take a look at some of the positives.

When users hover over an eBook in a carousel or category, a pop-up appears detailing all the important things customers look for when deciding whether or not to buy. Buy now buttons enable users to add to cart without visiting the product page.

One thing that Google could introduce to improve this, and their average order value, is to enable users to continue shopping in the store when the buy button has been clicked. Instead, the default behaviour is to take you straight to the cart. While this is standard on product pages, buying from a category page should give users an option. 

The absence of being able to buy from category pages or search results has long been one of my criticisms of Amazon's website, actually, perhaps my only criticism. I would expect to see this feature being added by Amazon before Christmas 2011 comes around. 

At the bottom of product pages is bibliographic information, which includes the aforementioned category links. To the right of this is a QR code and perhaps the first time I've seen this used on an ecommerce product page. I spent some time thinking through why Google would add this, especially when two thirds of consumers don't know what a QR code is

Scanning this takes you to exactly the same page and this actually makes some sense. Google is selling eBooks, which are primarily read on mobile devices. Providing users with the opportunity to scan from their PC or laptop onto their mobile device, enabling them to download direct, is well thought out. 

Despite these features, on this evidence, I'm not convinced that the eBookstore will compete with Amazon any time soon. There are simply not enough reasons for consumers to switch right now. 

With Amazon stocking more eBooks and having locked Kindle users into buying direct, I can't see Google competing. This is why I'm surprised that Google isn't pushing its eBookstore more to Android users. Here they have a captive and locked-in audience and the ability to establish a market share more quickly. Maybe this is part two of its strategy and if that's the case, it needs to be rolled out sooner rather than later. 

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