Erik Saltvold has been selling bicycles since 1977 when at age 13 he set up shop in his parents’ barn in Minnesota in 1977 selling refurbished bikes. At that time, all it took was word of mouth and a handmade sign by the side of the road to bring in customers.
Nowadays, he relies heavily on Google to attract bike enthusiasts to his 33 brick-and-mortar stores in eight Midwestern states and to his ecommerce site, EriksBikeShop.com. In particular, he places ads on Google Shopping that include a product’s image, description and price. He also uses Google’s local inventory feature that allows him to show what he has in stock to consumers searching for bikes near his stores, helping to drive traffic to those locations, which account for 85% of his revenue.
And Google Shopping ads play a big role in his online sales. Saltvold, owner of Erik’s Bike Shop Inc., says 20% of his website revenue comes from Google Shopping ads. Another 3% comes from similar shopping ads on the Bing search engine, he says
But now he has a problem: Google Shopping bans ads for e-bikes that go more than 15.5 miles per hour. Saltvold and other bike industry executives say that includes virtually every electric bike on sale in the U.S. The 15.5 mile-per-hour limit is based on the European standard. It limits e-bikes to 25 kilometers per hour, which equates to 15.5 miles per hour.
However, the U.S. government has since 2002 permitted the use of e-bikes that go up to 20 miles per hour. Now, the federal standard and those of 38 states permit three classes of e-bikes, including Class III e-bikes, designed for motorways, which can travel up to 28 miles per hour. Class I and II bikes are designed for bike lanes and paths.
“I’m baffled by this,” says Saltvold, who says all e-bikes sold in the U.S. go up to 20 miles per hour because that’s what U.S. bikers have come to expect. “Their policy would preclude using Google Shopping to advertise any e-bike. I don’t understand why they would adopt a policy that effectively contradicts the U.S. standard.”
Google sticks with the European e-bike speed limit
Saltvold went to the bicycle industry advocacy group and trade association PeopleForBikes a few years ago after he could not get an explanation for the policy from Google. He did that after the tech giant threatened to shut down his Google Shopping account because his e-bikes exceeded Google’s allowed speed.
PeopleForBikes contacted a Google executive, Jason Szczech, according to Larry Pizzi. Pizzi is chief commercial officer at bicycle manufacturer Alta Cycling Group LLC and chairman of PeopleforBikes’ electric bike subcommittee.
Szczech, whose current title at Google is Shopping Ads Go-To-Market Lead II, initially was sympathetic to the industry’s argument that Google should have a different rule for the North American market, where retailers can legally sell faster bikes, according to Pizzi. But Google ultimately stuck with the lower European limit.
“They chewed on that for some time and came back to us and said, ‘No, it’s been decided we need a global policy. And because the market is so much more mature in Europe, we’re going to abide by the European regulations,’” Pizzi recalls.
Szczech passed on the news in an email to Pizzi that said, “Unfortunately, after much discussion and review of the appropriate materials, the decision remained the same, and the policy will continue to include the 15.5 mph limit. Much of the same rationale still applied. My apologies that I do not have a more desired outcome to share.”
Google declined to make Szczech available for comment for this article.
Some e-bike sellers sought to get around the Google rule by not including the maximum speed of their electric bikes in their product descriptions. But Google recently strengthened its policy by requiring that the maximum speed be included in the product title or description.
A Google spokesman told Digital Commerce 360 by email, “We have for years allowed the promotion of motor-powered bicycles with speeds of no more than 15.5 mph. That policy has not changed. To improve transparency, our recent update requires advertisers promoting electric bikes to disclose to consumers the speed limit in the ad and on the landing page.”
Though Google said the policy would take effect in June, a check by Digital Commerce 360 of e-bike ads on Google Shopping shows most listings omit the speed of the e-bike.
Does Google enforce its advertising rules consistently?
Saltvold says he stopped advertising e-bikes on Google Shopping for six months a couple of years ago when Google threatened to shut down his account. But he then resumed when he saw Google wasn’t enforcing the rule against competitors advertising e-bikes that went faster than 15.5 miles per hour.
“One of the frustrations is that it really is the only place that can drive that many eyeballs to our website,” he says. “So it’s a large part of our ecommerce strategy.”
He’s not alone. Google Shopping ads accounted for 58% of the clicks on Google paid search ads in the fourth quarter of 2021, according to digital marketing agency Merkle Inc. Bing doesn’t have a similar rule, but Saltvold says it doesn’t drive as much traffic to his ecommerce site. Saltvold also says he’s frustrated that Google doesn’t seem to enforce its rule consistently.
“We’re not doing anything that a thousand other retailers aren’t doing,” he says.
Because of Google’s recent update to its rule and the reaction from e-bike retailers like Saltvold, Pizzi says his subcommittee will revisit the Google policy, though he notes it has many other priorities. For its part, Google says through its spokesman, “We are always evaluating government regulations and guidance, including global and regional variations, when developing our policies. The safety of consumers is our priority, and we will provide sufficient notice through our Help Center and Change Log should there be any future changes on this or other policies.”
How retailers can work around Google’s e-bike policy
Google’s stance on e-bike advertising comes when U.S. consumers are buying more electrified vehicles. The Light Electric Vehicle Association estimated U.S. imports of e-bikes more than tripled to around 790,000 in 2021 from around 250,000 in 2019.
Pizzi of PeopleForBikes says virtually all e-bikes sold in the U.S. are imported. He says many estimates of e-bike sales don’t count direct sales from manufacturers on online marketplaces like Amazon. Counting those sales, he estimates U.S. consumers now buy 1.1 million e-bikes a year.
E-bike sales are certainly growing for Erik’s Bike Shop — at about 80% to 100% a year in recent years, Saltvold says. That leaves bike retailers and brands wondering how they can advertise their e-bikes without running afoul of Google.
There are several strategies, says Jonathan Mendez, managing director at Markacy, a digital marketing agency.
“If they want to continue to sell on Google Shopping, it’s possible to advertise accessories for e-bikes such as helmets,” Mendez says. “And once a customer clicks through, the landing page can include links to their e-bikes. If formatted correctly, the accessories also may pop up in searches for e-bikes.”
Retailers and brands also can advertise on television and social media. And, as it appears, the Google Shopping rule doesn’t apply to Google text ads or Google-owned YouTube. Those marketing channels remain open.
He notes that Google often has imposed constraints on advertisers, for example on products related to alcohol, tobacco and health, and that sometimes Google’s policies lag behind government regulations.
Mendez says the e-bike rule appears to be “an oversight by Google that will most likely be eventually overturned, especially if more retailers and manufacturers complain until the issue reaches the right people at Google, most likely its lawyers.”
Retailers like Saltvold can only hope he’s right.
Erik’s Bike Shop is No. 824 in the 2022 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000 database, which ranks the 1,000 leading North America-based retailers and brands by their online sales.
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