The evolution of e-commerce

April 2, 2019

As the internet celebrates its 30th birthday, Marc Swann, search director at online marketing agency Glass Digital, reflects on the rapid evolution of e-commerce and examines the challenges facing its future

It’s 30 years since scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web as a way for researchers to share information, and the internet has since shaped up to be the world’s commercial hub.

Online retailers have faced lots of challenges along the way: the dot-com bubble burst and the rise of cybercrime; the emergence of pricecomparison websites and pay-per-click marketing; and the increasingly nuanced algorithms of search engines and social media networks, to name a few.

The disruption isn’t going to stop anytime soon. And, with an estimated 3.9 billion internet users worldwide (according to the International Telecommunications Union) online competition has never been fiercer.

Only the most adaptable businesses can thrive in an ever-changing, increasingly crowded e-commerce landscape. So, what should you be preparing for in 2019 and beyond?

The rise of voice search

More than one in ten Brits own a smart speaker, such as Amazon Echo or Google Home, with 58 per cent using them to answer general questions and 47 per cent for news updates (YouGov). This presents a significant opportunity for businesses, acting as publishers, to interact with potential customers at various stages of the buying cycle.

Google is currently beta-testing the ‘speakable’ property, which allows webmasters to mark up content that is suitable for being read aloud using text-to-speech technology. As well as being a huge step for accessibility, this could seriously improve the quality of smart speaker responses. History suggests that online publishers who get in early and establish themselves in this new voice-search framework could be seriously rewarded.

Descent of the desktop

Improved accessibility and affordability mean mobile internet usage has been on an upward trajectory for years, and a site’s mobile-friendliness has long played a role in its success. However, we’re now at a tipping point, where ignoring the descent of the desktop could mean signing your site’s death warrant — UK users consume twice as many digital minutes on their mobile as they do on their desktop (Comscore).

Mobile experience is even more crucial if, like most businesses, you rely on organic traffic. Two years since Google launched its mobile-first index, more than half of its search results are ranked based on smartphone performance.

The fight against ‘fake news’

‘Fake news’ is one of the biggest challenges facing the internet today, and the fight doesn’t just affect sites covering current affairs. With consumers understandably wary and organisations taking steps to help them make more informed decisions, every claim comes under the spotlight. Transparency and trustworthiness have never been more important in e-commerce.

For example, as well as launching the Google News Initiative, which aims to flag misinformation and support accurate journalism, Google has been making changes to its E-A-T (expertise-authoritytrust) algorithm and search quality rating guidelines. The goal is to rank reliable information higher and dubious information lower.

The algorithm is particularly stringent when it comes to YMYL (your money, your life) content, which “could potentially impact the future happiness, health, financial stability, or safety of users”.

So, if you want your site to rank well in 2019 and beyond — especially in markets like finance and health — you need to prove your credentials. That means it’s more beneficial than ever to showcase honest customer reviews, provide contact details, publish expert content, generate positive press and win industry awards.

Quick customer service

If we had a question about a product or service 30 years ago, we probably had to put pen to paper and wait weeks for a response. But, as we’ve gotten used to the internet providing everything on demand, we’ve become more impatient when it comes to customer service. Expectations are rising, and brands that can’t keep up could be left behind.

42 per cent of users want to engage with customer services by live chat, and almost a third would like to communicate via Facebook or Twitter (HubSpot). These users expect answers within hours or even minutes. 87 per cent of customers sending a query via email expect a reply in one day or less (MyCustomer).

Using artificial intelligence could be the way forward. Chatbots provide instant answers to frequently asked questions and can use machine learning to eventually tackle more complicated queries. It might seem impersonal at the moment — everyone knows how much customers hate automated menus and pre-recorded messages on the phone, after all. But, as consumers get used to interacting with virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa, they’re becoming much more accepting of these non-human communications.

Virtual and augmented reality

The biggest drawback of shopping online? You can’t get up close and personal with products. However, virtual and augmented reality are making it easier for retailers to bridge the gap between an online and in-store experience, so customers can enjoy the best of both worlds. The IKEA Place app, for example, allows shoppers to visualise what products would look like in their homes.

It’s easy to write AR and VR off as a fad, but that’s exactly what many retailers did with the idea of online shopping 20 years ago. Early adopters will stand themselves in good stead for a future where this technology could well be the norm, as well as gaining a competitive advantage now.

The Internet of Value

Tim Berners-Lee invented the internet so that information could be freely exchanged directly from person to person — so scientific research didn’t need to be published in a journal to be seen. The shift towards the Internet of Value is an effort to do the same with all kinds of assets, from money to music, using a decentralised and democratic blockchain network (like that used to transfer cryptocurrency).

It basically means that transactions can be made directly between the parties involved for free or just fractions of a penny, streamlining the supply chain and eliminating the need for so-called middlemen like PayPal, matchmakers like Uber, distributors like Spotify, and marketplaces like Amazon. For instance, authors could sell e-books directly to readers and, with no one else taking a cut, both would get a better deal.

While the Internet of Value is a huge threat to many businesses, it also paves the way for new industries and presents a multitude of opportunities. As always, those that adapt to changing markets and technologies, rather than trying to resist them, are most likely to still be standing 30 years down the line.

Glass Digital
Glass Digital is an online marketing agency based in Newcastle upon Tyne. If you need help implementing a futureproof organic search, paid search or affiliate marketing strategy, get in touch with client services director Steve Close on 0191 338 6903.