October 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Lots of Choices

(Page 3 of 4)

Comparison engines depend on product data feeds from the listing merchants and the technical requirements of the data feed remain challenging for most merchants. “Data feed management and data feed submission are not just problems for small businesses. Major brand name manufacturers have difficulty normalizing their data for the shopping engines,” says Smith of SingleFeed. That is a function of the fact that the engines have different feed specifications.

While platforms such as ChannelAdvisor’s provide one answer, merchants who have their hands full keeping on top of feeds with or without outside help might easily be tempted to ignore new feed specs that an engine labels as “optional.” But they do so at their own risk. “Any new thing the engines do, they call optional because they want everything to be backwards-compatible,” Wingo says. But, imagine that a new option is showing shoppers shipping costs by ZIP code. If a consumer enters a ZIP code and wants to see shipping costs, but the retailer has opted out of providing that information, the retailer won’t show up in those results.

In Wingo’s estimation, “optional” features mean that the engine will accept the merchant’s data feed without them-but they really aren’t optional if the merchant is interested in selling. “Your competitors are going to do these things, such as adding new attributes,” he says. “For example, Google product search is aggressively using attributes to make it easier for people to find things. For iPods, you can submit attributes such as ‘30 gigabytes’ and ‘black’ in addition to the product title. If you don’t submit those attributes, you are going to fall out if someone is searching on the attributes.”

9. Shadow the shopping engines

Retailers find it a challenge to work closely with the shopping engines and understand their different models and how they prioritize products. “Every shopping engine has unique data feed specifications, a unique taxonomy and dozens of quirks that aren’t properly documented,” Smith says. As a result, he says, only the most technically advanced merchants or savviest marketers submit data feeds frequently, while many merchants submit a feed and then forget it because it’s too difficult to deal with.

But those who are most successful make understanding feed specs, including changes and updates, a mission. “Getting that information is a top priority,” says Mellen of eBags.com. “We recognize the shopping engines are continuing to refine their models and to develop systems that provide a better customer experience.”

Mellen and his team constantly read up on any published changes, follow blogs that discuss the topic and stay in touch with engine account reps. “When the engines make a significant update they will send out newsletters or other material to keep us informed. But we need to work to stay on top of it,” he says.

10. Try the second tier

Smith notes that shopping engines generally are categorized by traffic, with first-tier engines defined as those that are highly trafficked and second-tier engines, less so. But the volume of traffic isn’t the only thing that matters to a merchant-the quality of the traffic matters, too. “If a merchant is properly tracking clicks, costs, and sales, that merchant might find that some of the second-tier engines perform better than the first-tier engines,” he adds.

As an example, Wingo says one of the shopping engines producing the highest conversion rates for merchants using ChannelAdvisor’s services is a very small comparison engine for hand tools on BobVila.com. “It is such a great match between audience and product set that the conversion rates are huge,” he says. “It’s not a top-25 shopping engine, but it drives more qualified leads and sales than you would on a PriceGrabber or one of the others.”

11. Make shopping social

Targeting a specific audience with a niche assortment is one way to drive sales at shopping engines. Some say adding a social element is another.

A large part of what sets Jellyfish.com apart from other comparison sites is its social component. Jellyfish.com this year introduced a social shopping feature called Smack Shopping auctions, in which the price of the auctioned product drops continually, and shoppers buy when they like the price. The application also allows shoppers to chat with each other about the product and the auction as it is happening.

“Jellyfish shopping search is for people who know what they want to buy. But if it’s more of a QVC-type impulse purchase, it certainly helps when you have an entertainment component,” says CEO Brian Wiegand. “With Smack Shopping, we extended that to a Web 2.0 model that lets people talk to each other to create content and entertainment oriented around the products.”

At Jellyfish.com, merchants bid for position according to how much commission they are willing to pay on a product. Merchants are charged per sale, not on click-through, and the shopping site shares a percentage of the fee it receives from merchants with shoppers in the form of cash back.

In October, Microsoft Corp. paid undisclosed millions to acquire Jellyfish as part of an ongoing initiative to bolster its shopping and e-commerce business. Wiegand says his business model and other new models in the space reflect efforts to compete with the search arbitrage that built the traditional shopping engines by changing the game.

In the arbitrage model, shopping engines acquire traffic from general search engines and then sell it back to merchants as qualified traffic at a higher rate. However, as the new engine in the space “you can’t keep re-buying customers from a search engine and survive. So you have to find new ways to make customers think of coming to you first,” Wiegand says. “One way to do that is social shopping. Our thought was, create something fun that makes people hang out at Jellyfish and think of going there first. Our sales quadrupled when we added Smack Shopping.”

12. Don’t set and forget

It’s just one of the many options that merchants need to keep in view in understanding that comparison shopping engines aren’t a set-it-and-forget-it proposition, and in seeking to keep their programs matched up with the fast-changing environment. “Without changing your strategy, if you look at it on the surface, comparison shopping engines are getting more expensive, just like paid search,” says Wingo. “We work with retailers to tweak their strategy and find ways to fight that inflation. There is a lot you can do now with optimization.”

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