Inside DealTime's Shopping Search Engine

DealTime is one of the most popular shopping services on the web, despite the fact that it doesn't directly sell any products to consumers.

When you think of online shopping, Amazon, Yahoo Shopping, eBay and MSN Shopping are all likely to come to mind. No surprise -- these are four of the five most popular shopping sites on the web. What may surprise you is the identity of the third largest shopping directory and guide on the web (according to Nielsen//NetRatings): DealTime.

Founded in 1997 around the idea of "customer notification," DealTime developed a proprietary "deals database," designed to help shoppers compare products, prices and stores across the Web. Unlike the primitive Bargain Finder program described in Monday's SearchDay, DealTime not only provides information about products and availability, but also tons of other information to help you research products and merchants before you buy.

To do this, the company developed technology that's similar to the crawlers used by major search engines, but with some important differences that take into account the unique architecture of most online stores.

Unlike the web, which is made up of billions of pages without any underlying formal structure, merchant sites use highly structured databases containing product information, prices, stock quantities, and so on.

To access this information, DealTime had to build customized crawlers and what it calls "program language recognition" sorting technology to help people find relevant information about the millions of products available through online merchants.

Like all good search engines, however, this technology is hidden behind a well-designed and easy to use interface. DealTime.com is organized like a directory, with 20 major shopping categories and dozens of subcategories, making it easy to drill down to find information you're looking for.

"We cannot build a good user interface without the shopping knowledge," said Amir Ashkenazi, DealTime's chief technology officer and co-founder.

But DealTime also features a powerful search engine that lets you narrow your search in a number of ways. "We view ourselves first and foremost as a shopping search engine," said Dan Ciporin, DealTime's CEO.

Using DealTime is easy. Start by choosing a category or entering keywords for a product, and DealTime searches its database of more than 1,400 online merchants for a match. Most searches offer several product options. Choose one, and you'll see a brief product description (with links to a full description and specs), and a list of retailers selling the product.

For each retailer, you'll also see the price, whether the product is in stock or not, the retailer's telephone number and a link to buy the product online. Enter your zip code, and the site will also calculate approximate tax and shipping charges.

Search results also offer two other types of information that can be helpful in making your buying decision. Merchants that agree to abide by a rigorous set of customer service practices can receive a "DealTime Certified" designation.

To maintain this designation, merchants must have clearly posted policies, secure check out, a promise to honor prices listed on store Web site without excuses, no "bait and switch" tactics, and follow several other customer-friendly practices. Knowing that certified merchants agree to these terms can enhance your confidence level in buying from an unfamiliar merchant.

DealTime also allows customers who've purchased from a merchant to write reviews of their experiences. Be careful with these -- while many reviews are undoubtedly genuine, others read like they've been written by company shills or competitors seeking to smear the reputation of an otherwise reputable merchant.

David Epstein, DealTime's chief strategy officer, says that all reviews are screened before posting, and that statistical comparisons are used to uncover outlier reviews. Nonetheless, these are all subjective comments and while they may help you get a feel for a retailer they shouldn't be the sole criteria you use to make a buying decision.

If you aren't familiar with the company's DealTime.com web site, you may wonder how it has managed to become one of the top five shopping sites on the web. The answer lies in the alliances the company has made with other, larger sites. The "shopping search" function at AltaVista, LookSmart, Excite and iWon, among others, is powered by DealTime.

At the same time, retailers have moved away from an indifferent or even hostile attitude toward shopping comparison engines, and are now recognizing that these services are a very efficient way to acquire customers. "Large merchants over the past year have suddenly got it and are joining our site in droves," said Epstein.

Anyone doing search engine marketing for an online retailer should consider joining DealTime's Merchant Program, says CEO Ciporin. "If you look at typical search engines, when people use them for shopping, merchants are paying to educate," through the use of paid placement links or ads, according to Ciporin.

"On a shopping search engine, consumers have already done that research. This means that merchants can often pay less on a shopping search engine for a higher quality lead," said Ciporin.

There's evidence to back this up. A June 2002 study by Nielsen//NetRatings found that DealTime's visitor to conversion rate among at home users was 10%, compared with 6% for MSN shopping and 5% for Overture paid listings.

DealTime's program is similar to those offered by most paid listings services. After enrolling in the program, you indicate how much you want to pay in each subcategory your listings will appear in. Current minimum bids are displayed for each category.

Unlike paid listings, DealTime collects all of your inventory and pricing information from your Web site. It can do this in two ways. Like many paid inclusion programs, you can provide product information via a datafeed. It takes about a week for your listings to appear.

Alternatively, DealTime can create a crawler that's optimized for your site. The crawler regularly checks your site, and updates DealTime's database with any changes.

Your products appear in search results according to how much you are paying each subcategory. Products in each subcategory will be listed from highest paying merchant to lowest paying merchant.

You can monitor your pricing on DealTime and make changes at any time, 24/7. Pricing changes are implemented within 15 minutes.

There is no set-up fee to become a DealTime merchant. However, the company will charge you a programming fee if you opt to have it write a crawler to retrieve products information from your Web site.

What kind of referral revenue can you expect from joining this program? An August 2002 study by comScore, commissioned by DealTime, found that DealTime merchants received an average of $2.77 of revenue-per-lead, while MSN generated $1.31 and Overture 93 cents.

If you plan to buy online this holiday season, try beginning your search for products and information with DealTime (or the other shopping search services that will be featured in tomorrow's SearchDay). These specialized tools often return better results than you might get with a general purpose search engine. And they often turn up deals that would be difficult or impossible to find any other way.

DealTime
http://www.dealtime.com

DealTime Merchant Program
https://www.dealtime.net/welcome.html
DealTime's Merchant Program lets you create product listings that will be sent directly to your product "buy" pages. DealTime charges you on a cost-per-click basis.