Ad-supported shopping search site ShopWiki hopes to do what many established shopping comparison engines have failed to do: become a destination site rather than a link from a general search engine. As evidence of its worthiness, the newly-redesigned site points to its social features, and banishment of affiliate sites -- intermediaries that have flooded online product searches for years -- from its search results. But as the likes of Google and Yahoo display greater commitments to working directly with merchants, the future of online shopping and the roles played by shopping search sites, comparison sites and affiliate sites is uncertain.
This year's holiday shopping season might provide some indication of comparison engines' prospects. According to a new Advertising.com report, over half of those surveyed will spend as much or more online this year than they did last season.
"As noisy as the space is, the fact that a lot of sites have been around for as long as they have and still don't have the brand loyalty...speaks to the fact it's a relatively underserved area," said ShopWiki CMO Shoshana Zilberberg-Winter. Until now the young site, co-founded by former
DoubleClick CEO Kevin P. Ryan, has focused on product development. Now it's time to brand.
Like most shopping comparison and search engines, ShopWiki still relies on search engines to send traffic to its own engine, and has been buying search engine keywords to build site traffic, Zilberberg-Winter said. It also relies on Google for ad dollars, its sole source of revenue right now, through the sponsored links it runs alongside natural search results. According to Zilberberg-Winter, the site plans to announce a partnership with a content site which will most likely help drive more traffic to ShopWiki. It also may sell ads or sponsorships in the future.
Many shopping comparison engines derive funds from online retailers through cost-per-click listings, or charge for inclusion in their listings database. PriceGrabber.com, for instance, charges electronics and technology product sellers a $1,000 set-up fee to be featured in its results, according to a spokesperson. In addition, any merchant can pay "in excess of $1,000" for an enhanced presence on the site through its "jump start" program.
To create a communal feel for users, PriceGrabber.com also offers forums in its travel section; these are heavily populated by the site's staff rather than users at the moment. ShopWiki uses wikis, the popular document-sharing format, to facilitate user interaction on the site in the hopes of fostering communities around products or product categories. The editable product category guides are also written primarily by in-house staff writers right now.
The site also allows users to narrow results by price, brand or product color, keep personal pages and shopping wish lists, and submit sharable product review videos, for which it pays producers $50. Site registrants can also submit text reviews; many of the ones featured on the site now are truncated Amazon.com reviews that link to the shopping site leader.
Unlike some comparison sites that charge a fee for inclusion in search results, ShopWiki crawls the entire Web for e-commerce-enabled sites. And unlike other search engines, it filters out affiliate sites that are often set up simply to send traffic to actual retail sites.
According to ShopWiki CEO Ryan, users want comprehensive listings, so long as they're "clean listings." The shopping search site "should be the product that I want as a consumer, not the product that maybe merchants would want," he said.
"The shopping comparison guys look at affiliates as competitors," said Jeff Molander, CEO of affiliate marketing consulting firm Molander and Associates. He also added, "One thing advertisers [or merchants] don't like about shopping comparison sites is that shopping comparison sites are competing for ad space [on search engines]."
The largest general search engines are the ones sending the most users to shopping and classifieds sites, according to an August Hitwise report showing Google, Yahoo and MSN Search as the top three traffic drivers to the category.
Those engines typically have sent lots of shoppers and product researchers to other sites before they reach retail sites. However, the large search engines are beginning to cut off middleman sites at the pass by forming deals directly with retail sites, said Molander, who points to Google's promotion of its Checkout payment system in e-commerce site listings. Yahoo partners with retail sites and also aims to socialize online shopping through its "Shoposphere" communities.
"Search engines work with affiliates...but they do so less and less because they want to work directly with advertisers," Molander said. Indeed, the effectiveness of affiliate sites could dwindle as more search sites exclude them from their listings as ShopWiki is doing.
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Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.