January 29, 2010, 12:00 AM

Search heavyweights battle over shopping

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That model appeals to enough retailers that Bing Cashback is now featured with more than 44 million products from more than 1,200 advertisers, according to Kelly Scott, product manager for Bing Cashback. Microsoft expects Cashback to help drive up traffic volume as a way to bring more value to Bing`s pay-per-click search ads, a spokeswoman says. It`s those pay-per-click ads that have made Google rich, and where Microsoft aims to compete.

Retailers say the Bing Cashback program was especially attractive last year when Microsoft doubled the Cashback amount the retailer offered, paying the extra rebate out of its own deep pockets. Although Microsoft isn`t saying whether it plans to bring back the double rewards, it will likely introduce special promotions this year for peak selling periods, the spokeswoman says.

The new look of search results pages on both Bing and Google is producing strong results at bargain prices, retailers say.

At Drugstore, Lonczak notes how a search on Google.com for a Stila eyeliner, a popular product on Beauty.com, appears with several product images embedded within the natural search results. The product images appear because some retailers choose to submit them through the free Google Product Search service, a Google spokesman says.

Even though neither Drugstore nor other retailers have to pay for such images to appear, they all benefit from the effect the images have on getting shoppers to click on advertising links, Lonczak says. Clicking on one of the several product images embedded in the initial natural search results brings shoppers to a second page populated with more product images located next to listings of several online retailers. Although Beauty.com wasn`t among those image listings in a recent search, it still had prime position with a sponsored ad at the top of the page.

Reaching more shoppers
Other retailers say they have also gained broad exposure by participating in Google Product Search, Product Listing Ads and Sitelinks as well as Bing Cashback. "Because shopping preferences vary, partnering with programs such as Bing Cashback, Google Sitelinks and Google Product Listings Ads help provide choices to customers in the way they shop," says a spokesman for Sears Holdings Corp., the parent company of Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Kmart.

At online jewelry retailer Ashford.com, president Eli Katz says the expanded ways to sell through the search engines has made it easier to reach a broad customer base, which for Ashford ranges widely from shoppers looking for a $50 watch to those ready to spend $50,000 to wrap their wrist with the high-tech luxury of a major brand.

A search on Google.com for Ebel watches, for example, produces a mix of several paid and natural search listings—several including product images of Ebel timepieces listed at a wide variety of prices—for Ashford and its associate e-commerce site, TheWatchery.com, as well as several other retailers. "This is a great blending of paid and natural search that produces good results," Katz says.

Other retailers note there is still room for improvement in the new crop of search ad programs. "The preliminary results of the Google Product Listing Ads program are positive, but we would like to have more control on ranking products within our feeds to Google," says Jeff Wisot, vice president of marketing at Buy.com Inc. "With a catalog of over 5 million products, we want to make sure our best router shows up against the search query ÔLinksys router` and not one randomly selected from our product feeds."

Comparing the engines
Retailers say they also still see value in selling through comparison shopping engines and e-marketplaces, which are recognized in at least some cases as offering more comprehensive shopping portals where many consumers begin their online shopping sessions.

"Comparison shopping engines may have a larger assortment and number of retailers, more shopping options and a wider array of reference points including consumer reviews," Lonczak says.

A search for digital cameras on PriceGrabber.com, for instance, displays a range of navigation options not found on either Bing or Google. Although Bing appears to offer more shopping navigation links than Google, it doesn`t provide the same level of functionality as a self-contained site like PriceGrabber.

Clicking a consumer product review on Bing requires a shopper to link to a retailer`s site, which can take several seconds or more; but on PriceGrabber, a shopper can mouse over the word "reviews" to instantly pull up a review window, then click a link to quickly go to a PriceGrabber page to scroll through multiple reviews.

Google and Bing have the ability to further tighten the connection between Internet search and online shopping, such as by deploying widgets in search ads that would let shoppers make a purchase without leaving the search results page, says Wingo of ChannelAdvisor. "It`s an open question of whether they would or not," he says.

As activity on Google and Bing have already shown, however, the major search engines have emerged as strong shopping places that retailers must consider as part of their strategy for reaching all of their customers. With the competition between Google and Bing still heating up, online retailers will want to keep an eye on how these two powerful players use shopping to gain the upper hand as they battle for search supremacy.

paul@verticalwebmedia.com

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