Who’s Shopping? Who’s Researching?

After four days of all search, all the time at Search Engine Strategies (SES) last week, I thought I was up to speed with search’s bleeding edge.

I was — for a couple days. Until my meeting this week with the newest entrant in the shopping search fray: Become.com. Cofounders Michael Yang and Yeogirl Yun, the team that built comparison-shopping site mySimon (which they sold for $700 million), dropped in for a chat.

A couple of PowerPoint slides into their dog-and-pony, I realized an elephant was in the room.

It happened when I saw the screenshot of Become’s future home page. You won’t see it on the current Web site, as it’s still in beta.

The search box asks, “What products are you looking for?” Underneath, there are two buttons: “Research” and “Shop.”

Get it?

There were two dominant, interrelated themes at SES last week. The first was near-unabated chatter about the recent comScore/Overture study estimating 92 percent of all search-initiated computing and consumer electronics purchases occur offline. A BIGresearch study went further still, finding close to 75 percent of all consumers research online before buying offline.

These two reports sparked a bit of irrational exuberance among many marketers attending SES. Some, it seemed, appeared to have convinced themselves search equals shopping. Well sure, a lot of the time it does. And a lot of the time, people just search for information, Web content, and general stuff. As Yang put it, “There’s no context of user interest.”

As search becomes the fastest-growing sector of the burgeoning interactive marketing industry, spawning billions of dollars’ worth of new advertising and business models, there’s been no good way of knowing if a term such as “digital camera” means the searcher is researching a purchase, looking to buy a camera, or chasing down information about using a camera he already owns.

Now do you see the elephant?

Become is a shopping search engine. And its functionality is such that searchers must self-select, clearly indicating if they’re in browse or buy mode. “Here’s what I want,” they’ll say, “and here’s where I am in the purchase funnel.”

Consider the potential. Unlike Yahoo, Google, or MSN, Become is a pure-play shopping search engine. So it’s pretty safe to assume its users will be shopping. It will offer prices, user reviews, and comparison features, as do sites such as Shopping.com and Shopzilla. But for a research search, its new organic crawler technology, called Affinity Index Ranking (AIR), will return organic Web results.

The company claims to have the largest index of U.S. shopping content, comprising 2.2 billion pages from over 22 million Web sites across all product categories. Many of these pages are from sites selected by human editors, such as ConsumerReports.org. These might have very relevant shopping content but don’t necessarily rank well on the major search engines’ results pages. On Google, Yahoo, and their ilk, page rank hinges on inbound link popularity. The Consumer Reports Web site just isn’t linked much, but it is chock-full of buying advice.

Yun, cofounder and CTO, explained Become’s algorithm considers outbound as well as inbound links in ranking results and penalizes sites with in- or outbound links to off-topic content or spam. This differs greatly from Google’s PageRank, for example, which considers only the quantity (not quality) of inbound links. Google’s PageRank, Yun sniffs, is “outdated” (he also founded WiseNut, which LookSmart later acquired).

The above applies to results for research searches on Become. Shop search results happen the old-fashioned way: XML feeds. The company plans to add feeds midyear, shooting for 2,000 affiliate and merchant/vendor feeds by year end. Shopping.com, in comparison, has just over 3,500 feeds.

Here’s the part where you marketers out there feel like kids staring yearningly into a candy store. Despite Become’s unprecedented segmentation of searchers known to be shopping into research and shop modes, Yang told me the company has no plans to sell ads.

What?

Become’s financial model is based on merchant and affiliate feeds and CPC (define) and syndication deals. “We won’t bias our natural results with paid inclusion,” Yang told me.

That part I understand. Here’s the part I don’t.

On search results pages, Become displays contextual ads from Google’s AdSense. It’s another revenue stream, but nothing compared to what could potentially be achieved if Yun and his team went back to the lab and fiddled with the technology until it delivered targeted, contextual ads segmented for browsers and for buyers.

There’s that elephant, if you haven’t guessed already. This model could take a lot of guesswork out of search advertising. The stab-in-the-dark keywords and keyword phrases marketers are bidding ever-upwards in auction marketplaces amount to purchase funnel guesses. Become is a model that could advance the targeting capabilities by leaps and bounds. Is the searcher in the market for a “camera”? A “digital camera”? A “Canon digital camera”?

And is that searcher researching the purchase? Chasing down the best price? Or looking for the nearest brick-and-mortar store with the gizmo in stock? (Local capabilities are coming, says Yang.)

The company founders call their search engine a “shopping vertical.” The term is kind of perplexing until you consider the functionality. If this thing flies, Yang and Yun have other verticals up their sleeves. They named people, company, and medical search engines as examples.

This kind of segmentation and targeting would justify not only fat CPCs, but also potentially a new flurry of interactive marketing activity. Retailers and manufacturers would have the incentive to build highly customized landing pages, as well as information-rich sites and microsites finely tuned to buying-cycle stages, persona attributes, and other very granular information. All this would pump a fresh infusion of dollars and business into the industry.

Even if Become doesn’t sell ads, the content sites that rank well in its organic research results could do very nicely with ad sales indeed.

Of course, all this assumes Become successfully attracts traffic — never a given. Marketing plans are modest: word of mouth, a forward-to-a-friend button on the search results page, and a toolbar (hey, these days, everybody’s gotta have a toolbar!). When launch occurs later this year, a paid keyword campaign is planned, Yang said.

One last assumption. I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts Become ditches Google AdSense and rolls out its own ad solution.

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