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Buying Into Comparison Shopping Sites

  |  February 14, 2008   |  Comments

Most online media buyers are familiar with the major comparison shopping players. But they don't represent all the opportunities out there, nor tell the whole story of what's available to media buyers.

Comparison shopping sites and search engines have long been an integral part of strategists' online marketing plans, particularly in product categories such as CPG, electronics, and gaming. Combining the results-oriented elements of CPC (define) and CPA (define) advertising with a consumer audience that's highly qualified and motivated to buy, they're a great way to help generate both online and offline sales.

Add to that an already sizeable (and growing) user base, and the appeal is only greater. According to a recent Hitwise study, traffic to leading comparison shopping sites during one pre-holiday week last November increased 56 percent over the same week in 2006.

Most marketers are familiar with the major players in this industry: Shopping.com, PriceGrabber, NexTag, and Shopzilla (formerly BizRate). But these don't represent the only opportunities out there, nor does the traditional comparison shopping engine advertising model tell the whole story of what's available to media buyers.

So claims Michael Brown, president and CEO of HealthPricer.com. Founded in 2003 as a manufacturer of custom health supplements, the site has morphed over the years into a technology company, one aspect of which is a comparison shopping tool for health products. In addition to living on HealthPricer.com, where consumers can search over 400,000 products from about 100 hand-selected merchants, the tool is now white-labeled and built into third-party sites, including HealthLine.com, HealthCentral.com, and QualityHealth.com.

The shopping tool allows consumer health publishers to add value to their sites in the form of a dynamic marketplace section. Meanwhile, users can access the HealthPricer feature within the context of their favorite health content sites. The technology employs a robust tagging system that is critical to building an effective shopping engine, Brown said.

"If you're going to allow people to find products online without the context of retail store aisles to guide them, they need to know the process will be easy and that they'll find the items they're looking for," Brown said.

The notion of context is also at the heart of the comparison shopping engine media buy. Shopping engine placements are contextually relevant because they're delivered, along with other related products, on a keyword basis.

HealthPricer takes a similar approach, but has also begun to marry comparison shopping with display advertising to offer advertisers something beyond the product listings themselves. Through a select group of ad networks, merchants can now purchase keyword-driven banners surrounding its white-labeled comparison shopping tool.

This creates the potential for conquest advertising -- the kind automakers and dealers are known to employ on automotive research sites. As with any comparison shopping search, a merchant's product listing will appear (HealthPricer crawls its merchants' sites free of charge). But advertisers can increase their exposure and presence among competitors with prominent display ads, theoretically boosting the likelihood that consumers will notice and plan to purchase their products.

There's plenty of potential for this type of tool to attract users. The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports 80 percent of adult American Internet users (about 113 million) have searched for information on health topics on the Web, with most employing general search engines early on. If those consumers have even a vague idea of what type of health product they're searching for, they can bypass several steps and quickly obtain a list of what's available, while educating themselves on where to find the best deals.

Like its more prominent competitors -- which typically offer many product categories for consumers to choose from -- HealthPricer's engine offers the same active and attentive audience that makes comparison shopping appealing to advertisers in the first place. However, it has made the decision to remain specialized. There's something to be said for mastering a single category and delivering that perceived expertise to consumers and advertisers who are specifically interested in health-related searches and searchers.

Sites, portals, even social networks focus on singular topics for the benefit of their users. Why should comparison shopping engines be any different?

If we're lucky, this is a sign of the direction comparison shopping is taking as a whole. The focus should continue to be on offering more robust and customized features for consumers. This is a healthy industry, after all, and it only promises to grow stronger in the years to come.

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Tessa Wegert

Tessa Wegert is a business reporter and former media strategist specializing in digital. In addition to writing for ClickZ since 2002, she has contributed to such publications as USA Today, Marketing Magazine, Mashable, and The Globe and Mail. Tessa manages marketing and communications for Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy agencies servicing such brands as Bioré, Food Network, illy, and Hunter Douglas. She has been working in online media since 1999.

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