Google likes being the universal traffic cop online. Every little whisper, every intent, must pass through its gates. Like a sieve for all our online experiences. A giant that casts a long shadow over everything. Search. Content. Maps. Online payments.

But one place where it is losing its gatekeeper status—and struggling to be relevant—is e-commerce. So on 15 October, when reports indicated that Google will launch a new “Shopping” tab for its Indian users, it came as a surprise to no one.

“There’s nothing off-script about what Google’s doing in India. It’s similar to their actions in other countries. They’ve always had some intent to launch shopping in India and they think now is a good time since the e-commerce space is hitting critical mass here,” says Ankur Agarwal, co-founder of the price-comparison website Pricebaba.

According to industry executives, about 80% of all online search volume, and revenue, come from commerce-related searches. For a company whose bread and butter is search, this is one meal they can’t afford to miss. If users don’t search for products on Google, and instead make Amazon or Flipkart their first destination, it threatens Google’s very existence.

Rumblings about this have already been heard in the US. Though the Google-Facebook duopoly still dominates advertising spends in the US, a report from eMarketer predicts that American advertisers will spend close to $4.61 billion on Amazon this year. By 2020, the online retailer will account for 7% of all advertising expenditure in the US.

In October 2014, Google’s own executive chairman Eric Schmidt conceded that almost a third of people looking for products went straight to Amazon, which was twice the number that went to Google first.

“There is a gradual disintermediation of Google happening in favour of brands or products that have a real value. Most product search is migrating to platforms like Amazon. Advertisers that are in the business of monetising eyeballs are now moving towards specialised product platforms to spend their money,” says Suchi Mukherjee, founder of Limeroad, an online fashion and lifestyle retailer.

One way or another, Google needs to arrest this fleeing traffic.  

The Shopping tab then is Google’s latest bid to keep its e-commerce ambitions alive. To become relevant in a $38.5 billion Indian e-commerce market, which will have close to 329 million online shoppers by 2020. With this new move, Google’s turned up the volume on its already audible intentions. The question is, who’s listening?

Google’s life raft

The Shopping tab works just like the “Images” or “Maps” tabs on Google Search—a specific category of search results, which users can also filter by using parameters such as colour and size.