Searching is rapidly overtaking browsing as a primary way people find and buy products online, and the major online retailers have all stepped up their efforts at improving their customers' search experience.
Of the "Big 5" online retailers, Yahoo Shopping made the biggest strides forward this year, completely revamping its product search environment. The most notable change was the addition of thousands of additional online retailers to the merchants using Yahoo stores to peddle goods. A SearchDay article from September of this year features a detailed look at these enhancements.
The Biggies: eBay and Amazon
Even though eBay is the largest online shopping site, its search functions are comparatively basic, and have been beset with controversy this year. After the company redesigned the site in June, the Wall Street Journal noticed frequent sellers complaining on online message boards, so the paper commissioned a study of the performance of online auction sites.
"We were quite surprised at the transaction failures rates found at some of the sites," noted Joe Alwan, vice president of Marketing for Empirix, the firm that conducted the study. "uBid and eBay's failure rates in particular were very high, at one in eight and one in 20 transactions respectively."
"The basic search tool on eBay is primitive," said Ina Steiner, Editor of AuctionBytes.com. "It was only this July that eBay introduced automatic plural searches" and alternate spellings of certain words.
Steiner said that eBay is rolling out a feature called Item Specifics, beginning with event tickets. When searching for event information, you can filter results by city/state, date, event type and price. Several other categories offer similar filtering mechanisms, but Steiner notes that it's up to sellers to populate these fields when listing their items.
One of the more useful things you can use eBay search for is to get an idea of the value of an item. eBay As an Appraisal Research Tool: Are the Values Reliable? offers excellent insight into using various search and discovery mechanisms on eBay for purposes other than buying products.
Amazon also made headlines this fall when it formed an independent unit called A9.com to build shopping search technologies both for internal use and for other companies. Analysts quoted in a story by CNET News.com's Stephanie Olsen called the move a direct challenge to eBay and Google to stake out territory as the premier shopping search service.
"They'll be fighting it out to be one of the prime places for people to start out online to look for products and services," said Rob Leathern, director and senior analyst at Nielsen/NetRatings.
It didn't take Amazon long to realize a benefit from A9.com's efforts. In October, the company rolled out its new "Search Inside the Book" program that allows you to search the full-text of more than 33 million pages from over 120,000 printed books.
Amazon was actually an early pioneer the shopping search space, beyond selling products from its own warehouses. In August 1998 it bought Junglee, one of the first online product search services. About the same time, it launched its "Shop the Web" service, providing referrals to other online merchants. This was before it developed the myriad relationships with other retailers that the company has today.
AOL and MSN Shopping
Much like Yahoo Shopping, AOL Shopping has expanded its service this year. In addition to the 200 certified merchants in its shopping portal powered by Amazon, AOL Shopping has quietly rolled out a new web-wide product search in partnership with BizRate. Initially rolled out to AOL members, the enhanced shopping search will soon be available to everyone via a web interface.
AOL's goal is to create the "most comprehensive and objective and complete site for users to find any product they're looking for," said Jim Riesenbach, Senior VP, AOL Search and Directional Media Group.
Search -- and research -- will play a crucial role in the ongoing development of AOL Shopping, says Riesenbach. Ultimately, users will be able to search the web, go to decision guides, or directly access shopping search, with the user interface providing suggestions for specific queries, attempting to anticipate user intent.
The company is focusing a lot of attention and effort on shopping search, and has big expectations for future improvements, according to Riesenbach.
MSN Shopping also saw growth this year, increasing its advertising merchant base by 30 percent in 2003 and more than doubling its database of products. The service differentiates itself with exclusive deals and hard-to-find items from premier merchants.
The service also beefed up its search and browse functionality, adding tools like store and brand filters, along with price and product comparison information. MSN Shopping also has an editorial team that has compiled lists of suggested seasonal gifts in several categories.
Tomorrow: A roundup of other shopping search services worthy of your attention, with links to notable shopping search articles from the past year.
NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.