Google Debuts Catalogs Search

Web search engine Google is experimenting with a new catalog search system designed to help online shoppers connect with offline retailers.

Google’s catalog searching site, a beta version of which went live on Thursday, contains scans of about 600 different catalogs from offline retail outlets, ranging from L.L. Bean and Ikea to the Metropolitan Museum of Art Store and the U.S. Mint Collection.

Optical character-recognition technology enables Google users to search for words on the catalogs’ printed pages, which they can view either in thumbnail size, or blown up to original size.

When users are ready to order, Mountain View, Calif.-based Google provides links to the retailer’s home page and lists the retailer’s phone number, along with the catalog code. With certain retailers, such as L.L. Bean, users can even enter the product number into a form on the Google page, which brings up the appropriate product page from LLBean.com.

Google also has a feature for users to sign up to receive specified catalogs, and to suggest other catalogs to the search engine.

“Our company’s mission statement is … is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” said corporate communications director David Krane. “This effort applies to the front end of that statement. Content contained in catalogs online and offline is tremendously important information that affects millions of consumers.”

While the company currently offers its catalog search feature without having a relationship with the retailers whose products appear online, Krane said the firm is in talks with “a number” of catalog publishers — though he declined to elaborate. Currently, Google collects the catalogs as they’re mailed out and scans each.

Krane also said that Google was considering several ways to monetize the service, but couldn’t say when the firm might announce such a plan, or, even what it ultimately plans to do with the service.

“We’re not exactly sure,” he said. “We’re exploring all opportunities. We have some ideas, but being that this is the early state of the project … these things will certainly develop over time.”

Conceivably, Google could charge retailers to continue being included in its catalog site, once the service begins generating regular visits from consumers. Considering that the search engine receives about 7.6 million unique visitors monthly (according to Nielsen//NetRatings’ figures), the catalog site is likely to receive a wide audience, quickly.

In addition, Google also could charge for premium placement within its search results — a la Overture and LookSmart.

The search engine also could engage in some sort of information-gathering and database marketing efforts — collecting information such as most-viewed products, or the demographic or geographical information of Web surfers viewing particular items or catalogs.

Of course, the new offering also places Google into competition with a host of e-commerce plays, like as CatalogCity.com. CatalogCity aggregates retailers’ offline catalogs for a cut of the sales revenue, and has distribution partnerships with America Online, Yahoo and other major portals. Several CatalogCity merchants, like J. Crew, already appear in Google’s catalog directory.

Whatever direction Google takes with the project, which has been about three months in the making, Krane said it would be heavily dictated by user feedback.

“It’s really too early to tell,” he said. “We’re still in the first phase of gathering user feedback … which has been immense and generally very, very favorable.”

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