Search Gains Importance at Online Retailers

  |  July 21, 2004   |  Comments

Seek, find... and buy. Online retailers are throwing resources behind making the process easier for online shoppers.

Searching is rapidly overtaking browsing as a primary way people find and buy products online. The major online retailers have all stepped up their efforts to improve their customers’ search experience.

Of the Big 5 online retailers, Yahoo Shopping made the biggest strides forward last year, completely revamping its product search environment. The most notable change is the addition of thousands of online retailers to the merchants already using Yahoo stores to peddle goods.

The Biggies: eBay and Amazon

Although eBay is the largest online shopping site, its search functions are comparatively basic. Lately, they’ve been beset with controversy. After the company redesigned the site last June, The Wall Street Journal noticed frequent sellers complaining on online message boards. So the paper commissioned a study of online auction site performance.

Empirix conducted the study for WSJ. According to Joe Alwan, Empirix’s marketing VP, "We were quite surprised at the transaction failures rates found at some of the sites.... UBid and eBay’s failure rates in particular were very high, at 1 in 8 and 1 in 20 transactions, respectively."

"The basic search tool on eBay is primitive," said Ina Steiner, editor of Steiner noted it took until July 2003 for eBay to introduce automatic plural searches and alternate spellings of certain words.

EBay recently rolled out a feature called Item Specifics, for items such as event tickets. When searching for event information, you can filter results by city/state, date, event type, and price. Several other categories offer similar filtering mechanisms, but Steiner notes it’s up to sellers to populate these fields when listing their items.

A more useful purpose for eBay search is to get an idea of an item’s value. An article, "eBay As an Appraisal Research Tool: Are the Values Reliable?," offers excellent insight into using various search and discovery mechanisms on eBay for purposes other than buying products. made headlines when it launched a beta of its Google-powered last April. "Our job is to concentrate on e-commerce," said Udi Manber, president of "Our goal is to experiment with all kinds of technologies. We want to get feedback from users to see how they like certain features, and then implement that as e-commerce search." Last October, Amazon rolled out its "Search Inside the Book" program, which allows users to search the full text of more than 33 million pages from over 120,000 printed books.

Amazon was an early pioneer in the shopping search space, beyond selling products from its own warehouses. In August 1998 it bought Junglee, one of the first online product search services. Around the same time, it launched its "Shop the Web" service, providing referrals to other online merchants. This was before it developed the myriad relationships with other retailers the company has today.

AOL and MSN Shopping

Much like Yahoo Shopping, AOL Shopping expanded its service last year. In addition to the 200 certified merchants in its Amazon-powered shopping portal, AOL Shopping quietly rolled out a new Web-wide product search in partnership with BizRate. Initially available only to AOL members, the enhanced shopping search is now available to everyone via a Web interface.

AOL’s goal is to create the "most comprehensive and objective and complete site for users to find any product they’re looking for," said Jim Riesenbach, senior VP of AOL’s search and directional media group.

Search -- and research -- will play a crucial role in the ongoing development of AOL Shopping, says Riesenbach. Ultimately, users will be able to search the Web, go to decision guides, and directly access shopping search, with the user interface providing suggestions for specific queries, attempting to anticipate user intent. The company is focusing much attention and effort on shopping search and has big expectations for future improvements, according to Riesenbach.

MSN Shopping has also been growing, increasing its advertising merchant base by 30 percent in 2003 and more than doubling its product database. The service differentiates itself with exclusive deals and hard-to-find items from premier merchants.

The service also beefed up its search and browse functionalities, adding tools such as store and brand filters, along with price and product comparison information. Also, MSN Shopping’s editorial team compiled lists of suggested seasonal gifts in several categories.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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Chris Sherman

In addition to being Associate Editor of ClickZ's sister publication,, Chris Sherman is a frequent contributor to Online Magazine, EContent, Information Today and other information industry journals. He's written several books, including The McGraw-Hill CD ROM Handbook and The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See, co-authored with Gary Price. Chris has written about search and search engines since 1994, when he developed online searching tutorials for several clients. From 1998 to 2001, he was's Web Search Guide.

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