The use of price comparison services (also known as shopping comparison services or price engines) has exploded over the past few years, and even with overall sales down, research shows they're growing ever stronger. According to a survey released in August by ecommerce solution provider, Channel Advisor, fewer people in the U.S. are reporting monthly purchases of over $76 (down by nine percent to 25 percent), while more people are reporting monthly spending of $0 to $20 (up by 11 percent, to 27 percent). However, those same consumers are spending significantly more of their time online conducting product and pricing research, with 17 percent saying they'd purchased something from a general search engine, and seven percent using a shopping comparison engine.
While those last numbers may seem small, Channel Advisor says they're increasing, and it encourages businesses to make sure they're reaching consumers through as many channels as possible, especially search engines and price engines. Price comparison sites (including Shopzilla, Shopping.com, and PriceGrabber) usually do not charge users anything to use the site. Instead, retailers pay to be listed on the site, either through a flat fee or on a per-click basis, when a consumer clicks through to the retailer's website and/or buys something or registers their email address with the retailer.
Retailers who want to list their products on a price engine supply their own lists of products and prices, which are then matched against the engine's database. In some cases, the engines themselves will scan retailers' web pages to collect the pricing information, rather than relying on the retailers themselves, in an effort to provide what is arguably less biased information. Some price search engines also offer price history tracking and price-drop email alerts. As with most things on the Internet, each price search engine has its own idiosyncrasies. That, combined with the fact that the majority of online shoppers still use Google as a starting point for shopping, means that the price comparison game is one that is still very much being played.
According to the Channel Advisor report, Google was the number one choice as a generic search engine starting point for shopping, with its commanding 81 percent easily outperforming runner-up Yahoo at 11 percent. With price comparison engines, however, Yahoo Shopping was number one with 21 percent, with Shopzilla following at 18 percent, and Google Product Search at ten percent. And in yet another reversal, Google Product Search accounted for more inquiries converted into sales (18.83 percent) than any other engine: Shopzilla took 17.37 percent, followed by NexTag (15.89 percent), Shopping.com (12.97 percent), PriceGrabber (12.7 percent) and CNet (9.3 percent), with Yahoo Shopping near the bottom at 3.27 percent.
But where is Internet behemoth, Microsoft? Coming on fast, as it turns out. After years of sluggish results for its web search engine, variously called Live Search, Windows Live Search, and MSN Search, the company's latest endeavor in the space, Bing (advertised not as a search engine but as a "decision engine"), has made more than a bit of a splash since its June 3 launch. Web analytics firm, StatCounter, found that for the month of July, Bing picked up one percent of the search market in the U.S., rising to 9.41 percent; Yahoo dropped from 11.04 percent to 10.95.
Meanwhile, according to website data monitor, Hitwise, visits to Bing Shopping increased by 169 percent between June 6 and Aug. 8, starting the period in eighth place among price engines and ending in fourth. The impressive gains were due in large part to "Double Cashback," a back to school twist to its "Cashback" program, introduced last year via Live Search, which offers money back to customers for certain purchases made through the Bing site. The Double Cashback offer matched the cashback amounts offered by online retailers, doubling the money that customers would get back for items purchased from participating shops through Bing Cashback. Originally set to run Aug. 10-31, the program was suspended on Aug. 28, reportedly a victim of its own success. The standard Cashback program remains in place.
Microsoft has thrown a great deal of weight behind Bing Shopping, to the point where some experts have opined that the company's strategy involves pushing the price engine and hoping users stick around to use its search functions as well. Adding fuel to that fire was the July 29 announcement that Microsoft and Yahoo had finalized a ten year deal in which the Yahoo search engine would be replaced by Bing. Under the agreement's terms, Yahoo will keep 88 percent of the revenue from all search ad sales on its site for the first five years of the deal.
Bing Shopping is relatively simple to use. On its homepage, if one types in "U2," a slew of products ranging from a book about the band to a number of incongruous computer products appears on the first page. However, the user can filter down to music, movies and so on, to quickly access the band's output. Once the user has selected, say, the group's latest album, No Line on the Horizon, a list of stores offering that title appears, complete with price, relevant Cashback percentage, and a link to go directly to each store.
Google Shopping works in much the same way, with its pricing results including breakdowns of tax and shipping. The current setup of Yahoo Shopping produces a price range for a given item, requiring the user to click on a "Compare Prices" button to get the store by store breakdown. Shopzilla, once known as BizRate.com, and since 2005 part of the E.W. Scripps conglomerate, is a bit more difficult to use when trying to quickly drill down for a particular item; a search for "U2 No Line on the Horizon" brings back two pages of results, not all of them for the CD, which itself is listed individually for each store, rather than simply listing all relevant prices in one place.
NexTag.com, rated one of the 50 best websites of 2008 by Time magazine, has a relatively busy looking design, though it does offer easy online forms for travel itinerary and mortgage quotes on the homepage. NexTag includes the price history of each product a consumer researches, though it could come up with only two online sellers for No Line. Shopping.com is, at 11 years, one of the oldest price comparison engines still operating. Acquired by eBay in 2005, its operations are slowly being merged with those of the online auction site and its PayPal payment system. The site maintains an especially clean, easy to use interface. PriceGrabber.com, owned since 2005 by global credit information group, Experian, is another quick and clean-looking engine, which allows shoppers even greater speed in future product searches by allowing them to add merchants to a favorites list.
An interesting variation on the formula comes with BeatMyPrice.com, which bills itself as the "People powered price comparison engine." The service, operated out of Beaverton, Oregon, asks users to enter an item's name and the best price he's been able to find on the Net. The site then compares that information to data entered by other visitors. If someone found a better price, BeatMyPrice displays that information; if not, your price becomes the new low. Of course, the system is dependent upon users for accurate data, but at a glance, BeatMyPrice seems like it could be a winner.
In addition to these general merchandise comparison engines, there are any number of industry- and product-specific price comparison services. Most travelers are familiar with Expedia.com and Orbitz.com, but there's also a growing number of smaller sites like kayak.com and sidestep.com. Someone needing quick price comparisons on DVDs can head over to dvdpricesearch.com, while computer technology buffs can choose between Cnet.com and Pricewatch.com, which bills itself as, "The Web's very first price comparison site."
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