This Bot's For You

Everywhere I turn around these days I find bots. They’re on search engines or stand on their own. They search for products or for bargains. They may specialize in rebates or just low prices. While this may be the year of bots, there remains the question of what they’re good for. Breaking it down, let’s ask whom they’re good for, how they’re best used, and when they’re worthwhile.

The original intent of a bot is that it will take a collection of instructions into its software and then search for matches to those criteria. A consumer (or business) will fire up the bot when they decide they need a new desktop computer. The requested unit is described by brand, specifications, and other factors, then sent off. What the buyer hopes for is the certainty that they’re getting the very best deal on what they want.

But I don’t shop that way, do you? I need a computer. Here’s exactly what I want. Go get it? The desire for a deal comes to me only after I’ve gone through a long investigation. Those desires for brand and specification came from somewhere – where?

In other words, I want to see a bot at the end of the buying process, not the beginning. I won’t necessarily go to a bot from a bot-maker’s home page. I might, on the other hand, use a bot after a manufacturer has convinced me that their stuff is what I want. Instead of competing against the channel with a retail store, in other words, manufacturers could offer a bot that lets me search all their potential channels (including auction channels) after they’ve done the hard job of convincing me I want their stuff.

There’s another advantage of all this, to the bot maker. Instead of relying on advertising as its business model, the bot takes a transaction fee from the manufacturer for every deal it closes on the manufacturer’s behalf.

That’s really the way it works in real life. You decide what to buy based on a host of marketing and editorial signals. You then make a second decision: Where to buy, based on a different set of signals. In the real world, that decision comes from how far away the store is and the perceived price-value relationship. (The salesman who closes you might get a commission.) But how do you make that decision on the Internet where every store is an equal distance away? And how should a product’s maker best get you to the store – by competing with it, by taking money from it, or by (essentially) holding a blind auction for the opportunity their marketing has created?

What amuses me about this train of thought is there is a site that does just this, but I’ve resisted it because of its atrocious advertising campaign. The company is Progressive Insurance, and they sell car insurance. They sponsored this year’s Super Bowl halftime with some silly spots featuring E.T. of all things. But their pitch is that if you want insurance, they may sell you someone else’s policy. E.T., it seems, is a bot.

Related reading