Shopping Search Engines

Shopping search has grown up. Once-simple product search and price comparison engines now offer sophisticated tools to assist with all aspects of the shopping cycle.

Overall, shopping search engines are far superior to general-purpose Web search engines if you’re looking to research and buy products. This superiority comes in part because shopping search engines take advantage of the structure of online product catalogs, with clearly identified characteristics, such as price, description, and features.

But shopping search now also provides a lot of valuable information that’s simply beyond general search tools’ capabilities. Things such as consumer reviews, merchant ratings, popular product lists, total prices that include tax and shipping — all designed not only to help you find the best deal but research and compare products well before you’re ready to buy.

According to Nielsen//NetRatings, more than 21 million online users visited specialized comparison shopping sites in August 2003 at work and home. This represents an annual traffic growth rate of between 55 and 81 percent for the most popular shopping search engines.

Four players have emerged as the clear leaders in the space. (formerly DealTime) is the clear traffic leader, with nearly 12 million unique visits in August as measured by Nielsen//NetRatings. BizRate was a distant second with a still-respectable 6 million visitors, followed by NexTag with 4.6 million and with 3.9 million visitors.

The traffic increases are attributable to a number of factors. First, e-commerce activity is booming, with more than $80 billion in sales (including travel) expected for 2003, says Safa Rashtchy, an Internet analyst with U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray. And despite the massive traffic garnered by giants and eBay, the majority of the shopping activities are conducted outside these two sites.

Users have grown more sophisticated, using the Web for both research and product purchase. The major shopping search sites all offer varying degrees of product information, comparison tools, reviews, seller ratings, and other features, in addition to extensive price lists.

Shopping search sites have also been aggressive at traffic acquisition, through the use of banner ads, sponsored listings, and strategic partnerships. For example, PriceGrabber powers the product search at Ask Jeeves, and BizRate powers Lycos Shopping.

All of this activity has been a boon for both searchers and merchants. It’s now possible to get nearly perfect information about products and prices, giving buyers unprecedented power in the purchasing process. And rather than fearing such complete disclosure, merchants are finding lowest price isn’t the most important consideration for most buyers. Service, reputation, and other factors are key differentiators in the decision-making process.

Don’t Forget Shopping Portals

The major online retailers are also making search efforts. eBay and Amazon are the goliaths, attracting 43 million and 26 million unique visitors, respectively, in August.

Yahoo’s recently revamped shopping property is another leader, drawing nearly 16 million users in August, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. Yahoo is blurring the lines between shopping and Web search, often returning a link to its shopping property as the top result for product-related Web searches.

AOL and MSN also have popular shopping services, drawing 7.5 million and 5 million users, respectively, in August.

Finally, a number of other shopping search services are worth your attention. You’ll find descriptions and links to these in the Shopping Search Engines section of our sister site Search Engine Watch.

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