It may feel like time is passing more slowly in this time of social distancing, but the pace of eCommerce change has been increasing – by necessity if nothing else.

While there the continuance of existing trends will shape eCommerce in the near future, it is the enforced shift in consumer behaviours that will be responsible for the most far-reaching changes.

Comparing and debating how the future retail landscape will evolve can be an enjoyable, but my goal is here is to provide some predictions with a purpose.

To finish 2020 in a strong position and to spring into 2021 with energy, it is important to invest in improving our understanding of customers and developing new levels of readiness. 

So – let’s get started!

Google’s BERT update will result in surprising rewards for retailers creating quality product content

Recent, more general broad core updates that focus on improving the search engine’s understanding of the Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness of sites – the E-A-T framework.

The launch of BERT at the start of 2020 is something more fundamental, and the reasons why will become clearer throughout 2020 and into 2021.

Google’s VP of Search, Pandu Nayak, described BERT as “the single biggest change we’ve had in the last five years and perhaps one of the biggest since the beginning of the company”.

BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers and is a deep learning algorithm that applies natural language processing to understand the context of individual words and phrases, and the directional relationships between them, at new levels of accuracy.

What this means is that Google is becoming able to apply much more human-like understandings of onsite content.

More than this, Google can better differentiate between high quality content and low quality content even if (as with many ecommerce sites) much of the terminology and product information on different sites is similar.

In the before-and-after-BERT example below, Google is now better-placed to provide a more relevant product result due to having a better grasp of the context – it knows that ‘grownup’ is a synonym for ‘adult’:

Source – Google;

My prediction is that brands who put the most effort in to provide detailed and differentiated product and category pages will see significant benefits as Google is developing a better understanding of how to interpret product information to surface the right results.

Product information such as different variations, sizes, colour options, special features and descriptions now have a much greater role to play with a greater chance of being highlighted in the search engine results page. Widen’s PIM solution ensures that the most up-to-date, accurate information reaches potential customers.

As online retail becomes ever more competitive, and as whole new audiences are becoming accustomed to searching for product answers and information online, some brands will be ready for the BERT opportunity – while others will spin their wheels.

Social Commerce will hit new heights as shopping-as-entertainment rises

Social media is already used by many brands to showcase their products and partnerships, but the line between eCommerce and social media will become increasingly blurred.

As part of this the role of social media marketers will become even more focused on conversion optimisation than brand and communication.

With the coronavirus (an unavoidable topic!), audiences are turning to social media and shopping as pleasant distractions – at least in some categories.

CMOCouncil Content Role Customer Engagement Apr2020

With more and more people experiencing (almost) seamless purchasing journeys via social, we can expect this increasingly familiar habit to continue beyond the lockdown, in part fuelled by the stated priorities of retailers to continue growing the channel.

recent survey of more than 200 retail leaders by eTail and Stackla discovered that 50% of eCommerce brands are developing plans to join up social media strategy with their overall eCommerce plan, and 75% say they will increase or maintain their investment in social media marketing in 2020.

‘Shoppable’ Instagram posts, Snapchat VR and ‘buy now’ Pinterest buttons have become well established but the growth in social media fuelled retailing is not just down to technological innovation.

The good news is that new audiences are becoming familiar with social commerce, setting up accounts and payment settings that will persist beyond the coronavirus crisis.

With Like Counts continuing to be hidden across social platforms like Instagram and Facebook, vanity metrics (such as Likes) will become less focused on, with a greater emphasis on conversion dollars and cents.

Video will pull double duty, tasked with driving brand and conversion rates

In 2019, video content in eCommerce was identified as having a significant impact on sales, with 62% of consumers saying they watch product reviews before making a purchase.

The most successful retail brands will work harder by committing to video as a key part of the buyer journey from social to product pages and beyond – but they will also work smarter by measuring the performance of video in more ways than before.

In tandem with the BERT developments described above, video will also play an increasing role in search engine performance. 

Search engines are increasingly able to understand the context surrounding a video (if not the content of the video itself) with semantic markup like Schema. 

In addition, Google also is much better in 2020 at evaluating site quality based on engagement metrics and video has been shown to increase time on site, reduce bounce rates and provide a better brand experience.

The multiple practical purposes of video are becoming more evident to more and more retailers.

Global online video viewing and ad spending forecast

Across all clients, the ICS-digital content team has uncovered that rich media content – including audio content – has been responsible for an average of a 22% increase in time on site – with a corresponding increase in profitable action by visitors.

With all this in mind, creating engaging video (and optimising it for search) has multiple benefits – and it will take collaboration across multiple marketing teams to make it a reality. 

As such, I predict that not every brand will be equipped to take advantage.

Black Friday will be especially weird and wonderful

To some, it almost feels like Black Friday is here with Amazon  customers spending $11,000 a second – but for companies not on par with this particular retail giant, there will be some challenges to manage inventory.

Though coronavirus has resulted in a fall in production for many different types of product, the lockdown will nevertheless have created a surplus of widely varied ‘non-essential’ items that will need to find homes.

            Source: March survey of 304 U.S. retailers conducted by Digital Commerce 360.

Spring and summer products will be featured en masse on Black Friday, with some peculiar purchases being available.

I predict that consumers will see some genuinely crazy deals in some eCommerce categories, while other will be defined by much more limited discounting.

eCommerce brands are accustomed to the constant challenge of managing their inventory in the most profitable way, but many will have some unusual challenges in the uncertain weeks and months ahead.

About the Author: Martin Calvert is a Marketing Director for ICS-digital, an agency that specialises in digital marketing, translation and content marketing at scale. Headquartered in the UK, ICS works worldwide across 71 languages and more than 80 territories. Martin speaks and writes widely with SEO, digital PR and eCommerce performance as his favourite topics.