Specialized shopping search engines make it easy for searchers to research and buy products -- but they're also a powerful and cost-effective customer acquisition channel for merchants.
A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference in Boston, MA, March 4-6, 2003.
Shopping search engines make it easy for people to find information about products for sale online. Many of these search engines offer specialized features that allow shoppers to compare product types, pricing, and online stores across the Web. In this session, attendees learned how special shopping search engines were created and how content from ecommerce or merchant sites cam be included in them.
Shopping Search Engines
According to a Nielsen/Netratings report, DealTime is currently the sixth largest shopping destination on the Web. Iggy Fanlo, President and COO of DealTime stated that they use two parameters for: product selection and merchant selection.
Product selection refers to product features, product comparisons, user reviews, and price range. Merchant selection refers to brand, reputation, product availability, and delivered price (including tax and shipping).
"While price is a parameter," said Fanlo, "it is not as big as the others. We find that only 3-4% of our users do sorts by price/total price."
DealTime divides searches into two broadly receiving categories. "The first category is called 'productized' or single-model search results," said Fanlo. "When a person is looking for a unique product, we refine results by grab by price range, features, and comparing products."
The second type of search is the "dynamic navigation" search, which DealTime uses across all product categories. "This places emphasis on showing available categories along with the main search, allowing for further refinement," he said. "Each time a customer narrows his search down, the customer can explore the richness of the database through breadcrumb trails. Customers can look for things by attributes, while doing comparison shopping."
Conversions and revenue per sale are high on DealTime. "We beat the other shopping services, being three times as high as the second best, according to Marketing Experiments Journal," said Fanlo. "With shopping cart sites, these parameters are important."
Online merchants can sign up at DealTime for as little as $200. Once enrolled, DealTime can collect your inventory information by writing a crawler, which will visit your site regularly to update their database with any changes to your site. Or merchants can provide inventory information via a data feed.
Products will appear in DealTime's search results according to payment amount for each subcategory. Merchants receive customized reporting showing total number of clicks and total cost per product category.
Click here for more information about DealTime's merchant program.
PriceGrabber.com is a comparison shopping web site which offers visitors all sorts of pre-sales information so they can make the most objective purchasing decision, including product reviews, specifications, images, and other related information.
PriceGrabber powers over 200 other web sites with comparison shopping functionality. These sites vary from portal sites (like AskJeeves and AOL), to enthusiast sites (like Acoustics and Imaging Resource), to popular magazines (like PC World & PC Magazine). "We fully customize our functionality to the look and feel of the co-brand site," said CEO of PriceGrabber, Tamim Mourad. "We can also integrate our content onto a co-brand site, allowing for a seamless shopping experience."
"Our marketing strategy is to provide the merchant with a cost-effective solution to acquire customers at a very cost-effective ROI," said Mourad.
Shoppers can search for either a specific product or by category. They can also search by product name, manufacturer name, part number, UPC #, ISDN, and other product-related keywords.
Category-related search can be narrowed by (multiple) attribute filters. "Users can read product reviews by other users or leave their own review," said Mourad. "Users can also see side-by-side comparisons of retailers and product specifications."
Once users determine their product of interest, they are shown a list of all sellers for that product. However, beyond just providing them a price for each seller, PriceGrabber.com will also calculate for them the applicable sales tax and shipping cost.
Mourad said there is a misconception that the lowest price wins the most referrals. "Less than 20% of our users select the merchant with the lowest price," he said. "Users place more emphasis on the quality of service and the reliability of the merchant, which is usually expressed in the merchant's user reviews."
PriceGrabber has programs for sellers of all size and levels of technical sophistication. "We offer CPC programs for sellers that provide us with their data inventory," said Mourad. "We recommend that data feeds be updated at least once a day so we present users with the most accurate information."
Data feeds can be in .csv or similar formats. Merchants can either provide a URL to download data feeds, or the feed can be uploaded to PriceGrabber's FTP server.
For those who don't have an ecommerce-enabled web site or do not opt to pay for CPC referrals, PriceGrabber offers Storefronts program. "Storefronts can specify pricing and shipping costs, as well as methods of payment that they accept," he said. "Sellers can post their own product images as well as receive an answer questions for prospective customers. There are no up-front fees for offering your products through Storefront. Instead we charge a commission when your product is sold."
PriceGrabber provides online reporting tools to help merchants maximize their sales. In addition to standard CPC data, the online reporting system can monitor market share on specific products and can highlight top-selling products that are currently not listed.
Click here for more information about PriceGrabber's merchant program.
Optimizing Sites for Shopping Search Engines
Laura Thieme, President and Founder of Bizresearch.com, does a lot of ecommerce marketing for small-to-medium size businesses and presented some of the advantages and disadvantages of shopping search engines.
Thieme believes that shopping search engines are formidable players in attracting traffic, based on a Nielsen Netratings October 2002 report. "There are a lot of benefits of shopping search engines, such as PriceGrabber, DealTime, MySimon, Yahoo," she said. "I am a huge fan of these programs. Consumers can see everything in one place: multiple vendors, merchant ratings, etc. Some of the programs even have an online calculator that factors in shipping, rating reviews, out-of-stock/in-stock status."
However, she also believes that the major search engines (crawler-based search engines) and directories (human-based search engines) do not promote shopping search as well as they could. "Search engines that reap so much benefit from advertising," she said, "should consider educating people on how to use their shopping search engines and promoting them more to let people know that they exist. If there is more awareness of them, they will be used more."
Vendors need to prepare their sites for optimal search engine visibility in shopping search engines. Thieme advised optimizing the product title and description to improve cross selling. The merchant rating system also affects ranking and relevancy factors.
"For example, the top-service merchants beyond featured merchants, will get the best rankings as long as relevancy were to occur," she said. "It takes between 30-40 customer ratings of that merchant to get the top relevance/excellence. So if you are looking to immediately achieve a top-service rating by the Christmas season, you should start in July or August. It will take you awhile to get those customer service ratings, and you have to remind customers to fill out their customer survey ratings."
Thieme gave the following tips for optimizing merchant and ecommerce sites:
- Update pages often using relevant category featured items. Taking advantage of category page optimization lessens the submission cost.
- Encourage consistent navigation. Once potential buyers end up at your web site, make sure that they are having a good user experience.
- Link to related products and related inventory pages.
- Write ample descriptions of products using keywords. With proper optimization, web pages will show up under related terms not only in the search engines, but for site search as well.
- Ask the shopping search engine how often they are optimizing and refreshing their data. Are they batching the inventory? If you start using different shopping channels, you may have to write whole new program to batch your same inventory. Ask the shopping merchant what program they use and see if is compatible with your own programming.
- Monitor rankings. Price rankings are very important to monitor. For large-scale sites and large number of items, a monitoring (program) would be very helpful.
- Know where your customers are coming from. Understand your conversion rates, the cost per click, and cost per conversion to determine if your site is profitable from shopping channels.
- Add customer testimonials to ensure credibility. Not all shopping search engines have customer ratings for you to see.
Some of the top selling factors on ecommerce sites are price and shipping rates, product quality, and customer service. "That is why you need to have your site search be fully optimized," said Thieme, "not just for your page people find you own the search engines, but for the follow-up searches done on your own site."
Gary McEldowney, Marketing Director of AllergyBuyersClub.com, shared his experiences with submitting a data feed to shopping search sites.
AllergyBuyersClub.com sells products that help allergy sufferers and a whole range of healthy home products. The site provides independent product reviews and ratings, comparisons, and analysis of all products on their site. "Visitors can view the top products, including the minuses as well as the pluses of our products," said McEldowney. "Some manufacturers aren't happy about that, but we want to make sure we are giving the customer the best shopping experience."
According to McEldowney, AllergyBuyersClub.com is an Internet pure-play. "We don't have a catalog. All of our sales are online," he said. "We have been profitable since Day One, which I attribute to search engine optimization (SEO)."
McEldowney believes that optimization is the most important factor in getting results in shopping search. "Shopping searches are good because you're getting targeted traffic to your site," he said. "A person going through your shopping site has a need for your product. The reach of the some of the shopping sites through their partnerships is impressive."
McEldowney also believes that people go to shopping searches to compare prices, "If you're have the highest prices for certain items," he said, "I wouldn't recommend putting them through a shopping search engine because you're not going to get [many” clicks." He recommended placing niche products in shopping search, and looking for openings that are not being covered by competitors.
Additionally, he does not recommend sending in a data feed without optimizing it first. "Don't expect a shopping search engine to do the work for you," he said.
McEldowney recommends using a program like Microsoft Access if you plan on submitting different data feeds. "You can set up one global database and draw from that all of the data feeds," he said. "So you have one place to update all of your information. You do not want to have to update separate data feeds all the time."
McEldowney gave the following tips for optimizing data feeds:
- Select relevant product categories. AllergyBuyersClub.com has received requests for things that have nothing to do with their site, such as televisions.
- Research the various pricing models: CPC (fixed or bid), or revenue share. One might provide better ROI than the other.
- For a data feed, start with your high-margin (best selling) products first. Test it anywhere from 3 to 60 days. Make judgment calls on what you want to keep or add.
- Create a good, effective product presentation: description, product image, etc. This is especially important for Froogle.
- Follow up with customer or technical support after submitting your feed to an FTP site to make sure they received it. Every shopping search site has different data feed requirements. "Some little things that could go wrong," McEldowney said. "So follow up is important."
- Monitoring your lists by having someone go through the shopping site and make sure your products appear correctly.
In conclusion, McEldowney emphasized that people who frequent shopping sites are savvy shoppers. "They click more often and comparison shop," he said, "and more clicks add to your costs. Make sure your shopping search investment can handle those additional clicks."
Grant Crowell is the CEO of Grantastic Designs, Inc, (http://www.grantasticdesigns.com/) founded in 1993 in Honolulu. He has 15 combined years of experience in the fields print and online design, newspaper journalism, public relations, and publications.