By now, most of us know how to “google it” when we want to learn more about a product. Serious shoppers also might head over to bizrate.com to check out the consumer reviews. Bargain hunters may even stop at a price-comparison site to help isolate the best deal. As we all know, none of these tools are seamless -- each generates unwanted links, repeats and irrelevant material. In the New Year, shoppers may notice searches have become smarter as many of these companies have set up new sites or installed search engines that will help consumers nail down what they want more efficiently.
The technology has improved enough so consumers can take the next step or “the next generation search -- the product search,” says Farhad Mohit, chairman and founder of bizrate.com, which recently launched “BizRate Lite.” The new, streamlined version of bizrate.com generates a list of specific products with links and photos if available, rather than a list of links. Consumers can still access the full-feature BizRate.com site, which contains its consumer reviews compiled by the Los Angeles-based company since 1996.
BizRate Lite mimics a concept that helped push Google to the top of the charts when it comes to search engines -- less is more. Google became popular early on partly because of its simple interface or great use of “white space” -- blank space that draws the readers’ attention to the most important element on a page. In this case, the simple search box sans the ads or other clutter found on most Web sites.
The clutter-free BizRate Lite is still in the beta or test phase as is froogle.com, the product search engine that Google introduced last year and limits its search results to Web sites that sell products.
The new search engines work best with hard versus soft products. Hard products can be identified “uniquely” in the mathematical sense. That is, most of these products have a number associated with it for inventory purposes, such as a part number, a SKU (storage keeping unit) or an ISBN, a 10-digit number used to identify books. Other examples of hard products include CDs, videos, electronics and computer equipment. In contrast, soft products do not have a unique identifying number attached to them, such as apparel, flowers, food and some household items.
Putting it to the test
To test the different tools, I conducted a search for “exercise equipment” -- a hard product that I know very little about but surely showed up on shoppers’ New Year’s resolutions list. Froogle.com yielded 637 hits in 0.18 seconds. (Some search engines now post how long the search takes on its home page.) Bizrate.com turned up 1,295 hits in 0.009 seconds. The company also provided links to six additional categories, such as “fitness” and “outdoor games and fun,” so that the user could refine the search. Price comparison Web site pricegrabber.com honed its results down to 26. Askjeeves.com, which is running its new technology called Smart Search, yielded a list of sponsored or paid-for-placement links, followed by computer-generated Web results.
When I narrowed my search down to a rowing machine -- the only piece of exercise equipment I’ve ever owned (and subsequently sold) -- the results were less in number but more on target. Froogle yielded 57; bizrate.com came up with 104 items and pricegrabber.com produced 22 results. A list of “blue links” appeared on askjeeves.com, with the option of clicking on a product search tool that yielded the same results as pricegrabber.com.
The Integrity Air 3000 rowing machine topped all lists. To limit the search even further, I typed in “Integrity Air rowing machine 3000.” In the end, there was no dramatic difference in the results. Bizrate.com had the most hits, nine, and one was a repeat. Froogle generated eight results in no apparent order. Pricegrabber.com and askjeeves.com had the least amount of hits but displayed them in price order, low to high.
As with most shopping ventures on the Web, it all comes down to consumer preference.
Askjeeves.com is designed for the browser or window shopper. These consumers are attempting to isolate what they want, rather than find the lowest price, says Daniel Read, who claims internal research shows that most consumers come to the Web to find a product and conduct research rather than buy it.
On the other hand, pricegrabber.com always has been and still is about the product search, says Tamim Mourad, chief executive officer of pricegrabber.com. A “search box is for the person who knows what they are looking for,” says Mourad. “The bottle-line is about price,” he adds.
Each site also has its own set of tricks or special features. Pricegrabber.com recently introduced the “shopping list,” which helps consumers figure out the best place to purchase multiple items on a shopping list. At askjeeves.com, consumers can type in their zip code and find the store closest to them with the best deal. Bizrate.com now has professional reviews in addition to consumer reports.
Right now, even the new product search engines are not sophisticated enough to solve all consumers online shopping woes. But consumers still expect a search engine will “read their mind,” says Read, who admits it’s “a tough challenge to repeat that trick all the time.”
In the future, who knows? “In the coming months, we will be using our technology to convert many soft-items into hard-items by cataloguing them,” says Mohit. The company is also tweaking and refining its image search, which will let consumers upload images and search for product matches. “It is an extremely new and cool feature, but not ready for primetime yet,” says Mohit. Stay tuned.
Teri Goldberg is MSNBC.com’s shopping writer. Write to her at