America Online Jumps Into Shopping Search

America Online is giving its shopping section a major overhaul, placing search at its center and promising more advertising options. The new channel, a version of which will be available on the open Internet, is set to launch next Monday.

The new Web site, which will reside at in-store.com, takes its cues in part from other portals’ efforts, such as Yahoo Shopping and Google’s Froogle. It’s also similar to offerings from Shopping.com, PriceGrabber.com, NexTag and BizRate. In fact, BizRate powers AOL’s shopping search results. All of these sites allow users to search for and compare products at a variety of online merchants, then click-through to buy those products. AOL’s service will also link users to local offline merchants, said a person familiar with the new offering.

America Online declined to comment about the soon-to-debut service. It has, however, been beta testing some of the new features at pinpointshopping.com. On Pinpoint Shopping, users can search by initially entering keywords, then narrow by product characteristics like brand, color, size and price range. Users logged in using their AOL Screennames can save results with a wishlist-like feature called “Remember It.”

“It’s really become standard practice for portals and the like to serve the shopping customer in a way that is more oriented toward the way people shop,” said Patti Freeman Evans, an analyst with JupiterResearch, which shares a parent company with this publication. Evans notes that consumers may appreciate “Remember It,” as people return to a site 2.5 times on average to conduct research before making a purchase.

Merchants who have products listed on BizRate on a pay-for-performance basis will see their listings distributed through the new shopping search site. America Online and BizRate will split the revenues generated when AOL users click through. AOL is also using the shopping search site to distribute the paid search listings it carries through Google. The Google AdWords listings appear in the navigation tab that’s used to narrow search results. They also appear at the bottom of the results page.

Company executives hinted of new advertising opportunities beyond the pay-per-click realm, but wouldn’t elaborate until the service is launched next week.

One new feature that may not be very kindly received by merchants is a price alert, which is part of AOL’s Alerts & Reminders service. Once a user has identified a particular product through the shopping search engine, he can ask to be alerted if the price drops below a certain threshold.

“This is a good thing and a bad thing,” said Freeman Evans. “It’s important for [retailers] to try to push full price sales. If consumers know they are going to be notified when the price goes down, they may delay their purchasing.”