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Shopping Search and Merchant Reputations

thurow-shari
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Consumers often look to merchant reputations on shopping search engines when deciding to make a purchase. But who determines these reputations? And can you trust them?

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, August 8-11, 2005, San Jose, CA.

Many shopping search sites carry ratings and reviews from shoppers, as well as third party sources. The Shopping Search and Merchant Reputations session looked at how merchant reviews may impact shopping search listings, and panelists offered recommendations for merchants to ensure that they maintain a good reputation.

How shoppers can rate merchants

At PriceGrabber, shoppers can rate merchants via two methods: filling out a merchant review directly at Pricegrabber.com or by participating in a shopper satisfaction survey. To rate a merchant, shoppers must meet the following criteria:

  • Users may only write reviews of merchants that they've bought from
  • One review per merchant per 30 days
  • Merchant "X" may not be referenced in review for Merchant "Y"
  • Reviewer must provide a valid invoice number
  • Reviewer must sign up for a PriceGrabber account, with the exception of reviews via the shopper satisfaction survey

"Sixty-nine percent of shoppers do not appear to be concerned with the lowest price," said Graham Jones, director of new accounts at PriceGrabber. "Product quality and customer service are also important."

Merchant ratings and reviews can help shoppers make more informed buying decisions. "Consumers view user reviews as objective," said Chris Saito, senior director of product management at Yahoo. "According to a Yahoo Shopping study in January 2005, 60% of users are uncomfortable with buying from an unknown merchant."

To participate in Shopzilla's BizRate Customer Certified program, merchants place a survey link on their check out page. The link delivers shoppers to a point of sale (POS) survey invitation. "Shoppers complete the POS survey to rate their just-completed purchase experience," said David Weinrot, vice president of direct marketing at Shopzilla.

The survey measures:

  • Overall shopping experience satisfaction
  • Likelihood of repeat purchases
  • Product selection
  • Ease of navigation

After completing this survey, shoppers are invited to rate their satisfaction on order delivery. "Merchants who maintain performance and customer-satisfaction standards become BizRate Customer Certified," said Weinrot. Merchant ratings "report card" data are then sent to Shopzilla's partners for display on the Web. These merchant ratings provide "at-a-glance" information about whether or not shoppers liked a specific shopping site.

Saito made the following recommendation to improve merchant reviews:

  • Send status emails on orders and shipping
  • Set expectations on delivery time
  • Be easy to contact via phone or email
  • Make "in stock" and "back order" status clear
  • Make return and restocking policies clear

"Solicit reviews from all of your customers," he said, "the majority of reviews are positive."

However, not all merchant reviews are appropriate. Quite often, competitors will fill out surveys to purposely lower a merchant's score. If you feel that a review is inappropriate, such as one that is clearly off topic or inaccurate, you can use the Report Abuse form at Yahoo. To get this form, click on the "Report abuse" link at the bottom of the alleged inappropriate review.

On PriceGrabber, merchants are allowed to post a response to a poor review. A panel oversees the merchant ratings. The panel looks at items such as IP address, invoice numbers, and account activities to ensure that the merchant review is accurate.

Online merchant reviews - fact or fiction?

Even though client testimonials and merchant report cards appear to communicate shopper satisfaction on the surface, underneath all of that data might lurk competitors giving merchants lower scores and advertising/marketing agencies hiring people to give merchants high scores.

"The problem with a lot of online merchant reviews is that they are heavily gamed by the merchants and sometimes by their competitors," said Jon Glick, senior director of product search at Become.com. "When you see a site list Amazon as a 3-star merchant based on 200 reviews, and a 'grey market' merchant listed as 5-stars with 5,000 reviews, it's hard to feel confident in the information you're getting."

"Right now, I don't think that the shopping search engines are doing everything they can possibly do to manage reputation," said Laura Thieme, president and founder of Bizresearch. "We need more types of support mechanisms in place to help merchants."

"I prefer that there not be any type of scoring outside of follow-up to the purchase," she explained. "Post-fulfillment reporting is best—reporting on the whole procedure. The reporting should be clear about what part of the fulfillment might have suffered, including things out of the vendors' control—such as product delivery."

"For example, one or two customers that have a poor experience on a merchant site. Whose problem is it?" asked Thieme. "How does the merchant get evaluated on the entire process if only one part of that process is not delivered?"

Shari Thurow is the Marketing Director at Grantastic Designs, Inc. and the author of the book Search Engine Visibility.

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