Search-and-Comparison Websites

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2541, 2007-10-12, as the cover article, in both their print edition (on pages 14 and 16) and their website.

Anyone interested in finding and purchasing a particular type of product, will find that it is probably available from at least one vendor who has set up shop on the Internet. From aardvark toy animals to Zulu toy soldiers, anything that can be packaged and shipped, can be purchased online.

Within a specific product category, and even for a single popular item, there is usually more than one vendor offering what you want for sale. In fact, the problem is no longer having too few choices, but far too many. A search engine can turn up hundreds if not thousands of vendors stocking that item, in addition to the new and used products offered through online classified ads and auction websites.

This accounts for the enduring popularity of shopping comparison websites, which perform the online searching for you, and aggregate the results, so you can quickly sort them — such as in order of increasing price, thereby zeroing in on the bargains. At least, that's the general idea, and the value promised to the consumer by such websites. That value would be diminished if a website didn't tell the whole truth, such as excluding deals that undersell those of paid advertisers.

Fortunately, every major shopping comparison website is well aware that visitors will only use their service, and recommend it to others, if it maintains a solid reputation for being trustworthy. Given how quickly news spreads on the Internet — via e-mail and social networking websites, to name just two vectors — it would not take long for any substantiated or even suspected impropriety to become well known.

Being Frugal with Google

When it comes to searching for anything on the Internet, the first name that comes to mind, for the typical consumer, is Google. Thus it should come as no surprise that Google became — and remains — one of the major players in this market space, when it introduced its own product search and comparison website, in December 2002, named Froogle.

It has since been given a more descriptive but staid name, Google Product Search. Yet the service's capabilities are unchanged. Its homepage boasts the same clear and spartan design as Google's other websites. It shows a sample of 25 search phrases that other visitors have recently used. Refreshing the page displays 25 new phrases, for those who enjoy the vicarious pleasure of watching other people shop for, shall we say, unusual items.

Many of the same search techniques that work for Google Search also work for its specialized sibling: For instance, searching using the two keywords "flash" and "drive" resulted in 86,221 hits, some of which are not flash drives. Putting those two words in quotation marks, narrows the search down to 72,982 hits, fewer of which are presumably unrelated to flash drives.

The "Advanced Product Search" feature is a must, because it allows one to specify keywords, key phrases, words to exclude, price range, and product category. You can also specify the sort criterion (relevance, price, product rating, and seller rating), how the results are formatted (list or grid view), whether to search in product names and/or descriptions, and whether to disable Google's "SafeSearch" so it does not filter out naughty items — or so I've heard.

Let's shop for a laptop, to test these services. For Google Product Search, using "laptop" as the keyword resulted in 1,258,359 hits. Unfortunately, the top hit is a woman's T-shirt, and the top 100 hits include laptop cases, reading carts, and a baby's bib, labeled "IBM T43 Laptop" and priced at only $1,005.99. Perhaps this is why, even after five years of use by the public and honing by Google developers, the service is still in beta.

In terms of trustworthiness, on each page, Google indicates that it "does not charge for inclusion in its search results or accept payment for better placement." This is commendable, but may be moot if visitors have difficulty finding what they are looking for.

Let the Copying Begin!

On 5 May 2006, Microsoft rolled out its answer to Froogle, named Live Products. Ever the innovator, the gang from Redmond also chose to put sample searches on the homepage. However, the product names never change, suggesting that they are preselected, and not dynamically culled from live searches. Moreover, two of the most prominent names include "Zune" and "Xbox 360", both Microsoft products — coincidentally, no doubt.

Microsoft's service does not appear to offer any advanced search capabilities. To compare its numbers against those of Google's, searching for the two words "flash" and "drive" turned up 47,151 hits, and using quotation marks, narrowed the results to 37,118 hits. There were only 1,390 products found for "laptop". These are far fewer than the numbers from Google, which was unexpected, given that Product Search gets all of its data from vendors uploading product data, while Live Products scours the Internet, compiling product information from tens of thousands of online vendors. Perhaps they exclude baby bibs.

Rounding out the heavyweight lineup, Yahoo Shopping allows one to search in 12 major categories, each of which includes numerous subcategories. Also, one can narrow the search to bargain items, using the first option in the "all departments" drop-down list, or shop by specific brand or store. One feature not seen on the aforementioned websites, is the ability to save search results.

Trying our tests again, "flash drive" as two words got 37,682 hits, and as a phrase, 24,127. "Laptop" garnered 1,245,975 hits, fairly close to that of Google Product Search. Of course, the raw numbers alone are of no value; what matters is the ease with which the website allows one to find the needle in the haystack. Yahoo Shopping has fewer sort options (price, and "top results", whatever that means), but better categorization. For instance, the laptop search can be narrowed by brand, processor speed, display size, etc.

Shopping 2.0

Just as social bookmarking websites are democratizing the way people find their news, some of the newest product research websites similarly try to tap the "wisdom" of the crowd. Crowdstorm gives priority to products that have been highly recommended by visitors, who presumably have tried the products. Registered users can add comments, problem reports, and blog entry links.

Mpire has much the same search capabilities as the others, and does not leverage visitor voting. But it does show charts of price trends, which can be especially valuable if you are in the market for a big-ticket item, and you want to see if average prices for it are increasing and you should move swiftly, or if they are declining and you may want to wait for a better price.

When using these product research websites for comparing products, be sure to compare the websites to one another, and you'll probably end up with a better product via a better comparison service.

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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