Kicking The Tires On Shopping Search, Part Two: The Independents

Just Behave - A Column From Search Engine Land A few weeks back, we looked at how the major engines, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, handled shopping search. This week we look at four of the dedicated shopping search portals: BizRate.com, Shopping.com, Shopzilla.com, NexTag.com, and a relative newcomer to the space, Become.com.

Each of these properties matched up quite well in terms of user experience with the offerings provided by the three major publishers. Generally they were cleaner, with better user interfaces and more information scent for the user. It seems to be one case where the independents are still leading the way, both in terms of quality of user experience and share of searches. The following chart shows market share information from Hitwise for major shopping players and you’ll see that the independents are edging out Google, Yahoo and Microsoft:

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In fact, if you look at the trends in market share for the Big 3 combined against the Top 3 Independents, you’ll see a significant trend away from Yahoo, Google and MSN.

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This trend chart shows some very interesting movement. Yahoo was a perennial front-runner in the shopping search has recently as two years ago. But as you can see from a graph above, they virtually disappeared from the landscape. If you’ll remember from last week, there was a lot I like about Yahoo shopping but my biggest issue with the overwhelming amount of real estate given to the top sponsored ads which pushed everything else too far down the page. I’ve taken Yahoo to task for this so many times that I’m beginning to bore myself with the message but maybe if I keep repeating it long enough somebody in Sunnyvale will listen. Froogle has yet to gain any significant traction and seems to linger around 8% mark. And Microsoft is currently hanging onto 6.5% of the market.

But the story here is the independents. The top four; Bizrate, Shopping.com, Shopzilla and NexTag own over 61% of the shopping search market, according to the Hitwise numbers. The big three combined own less than 15% of the market. Obviously, the market has spoken here loud and clear. The independents offer a better experience, and this lines up pretty closely to what I found in looking at them as well.

When we looked at the engines offerings last week we saw that one of the biggest issues with their tendency to take top of page real estate to show sponsored ads. For the most part this overt hijacking of real estate has been avoided by the vertical shopping search portals. In general terms, the results pages are cleaner, the things we’ve expect to find on the page are closer to the area of greatest promise, outlined below as the orange triangle, and the results are well laid out so the important information can be determined with a quick glance. There’s a fair degree of similarity between the features offered by the four engines we’re going to be reviewing today. So, without any further ado, let’s start looking at them, in order of market share with one bonus, Become.com, a newcomer to keep an eye on.

BizRate.com

Bizrate has captured the biggest share of the shopping search pie with 20.3%, according to Hitwise. Like most of the independent shopping search properties, it offers a cleaner search experience than the big 3’s shopping offerings. Let’s walk through the primary areas in order.

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If we look at the Area of Greatest Promise (a – defined by the yellow triangle), that critical area of first interaction where information scent is first picked up, Bizrate does a good job of reinforcing scent by showing the query category and a bread crumb navigation path. Below that, BizRate offers the typical filtering options (b): price range, brand and an interesting addition for those still in the consideration phase, a Buying Guide.

BizRate’s listings (c) are clean and easily scanned. Star ratings offer strong eye appeal, set off with a thumbnail product shot and clear pricing. Finally, BizRate offers tabbed category navigation (d) at the top of page. While this would be out of the scan path of most users, who would typically navigate by the keyword box immediately below, it does offer additional navigation option.

For shopping, BizRate offers a good, clean and functional user experience, which is likely why they’ve become the first choice of more users than any other shopping engine.

Shopping.com

Shopping.com has been the traditional leader in the shopping search category until recently. In 2003 they commanded a 38.7% market share, in 2005 at 18.4 % market share and in 2007 they’re hovering at around 16.7%. While some of this market share slide could be explained by increased competition, I also believe some key usability issues might be holding Shopping back.

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First of all, Shopping.com has followed the lead of Yahoo and Microsoft and has taken the critical top of page real estate to show advertising, breaking the rule of providing strong scent in the Area of Greatest Promise (a). This has the effect of making the user move down the page to find what they’re looking for. In fact, other than reinforcement of scent near the top of the page with a category title and some breadcrumb navigation (b), you only get a tease of product information showing above the fold (e) at standard 1024 X 768 screen resolution.

Shopping.com does provide the typical filtering options (c) and one interesting addition, the Top 5 option, a quick link to what’s currently hot on Shopping.com. But all in all, amongst all the Independent Shopping Search Engines, Shopping is most guilty of squandering precious user real estate.

Shopzilla.com

The next biggest slice of market share, at 13.6%, belongs to Shopzilla.com.

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Unlike the competition, which floats results on a typical white background, Shopzilla frames their results in a strong golden frame. This has the effect of defining the scanning territory and creating a visual boundary for the user. This creates an easy anchor for the eye to determine the Area of Greatest Promise (a). Like the other engines, Shopzilla delivers scent in the form of breadcrumb navigation and a category title.

One consequence (likely unintended) of the strong gold colored border is that it orphans the navigation tabs (b) at the top. Once the eye begins scanning within the boundary, this visual boundary would reduce likelihood of the eye wandering back up to this region of the page. The carrying of the gold color into the chosen tab may mitigate this visual blindness to a certain extent, but we’ve seen in eye tracking study after study how borders and lines create visual “fences” for the eye.

The filtering options (c) are a little more ambiguous than they are on the other engines. Video clips and Buying Guides may be good for researchers, but I’m not sure it’s a wise choice to move much of the filtering functionality below the fold to free up space for these links. People coming to a shopping search engine are into power price comparisons, with the “softer” research probably already done. I’d be tempted to use other real estate for research links.

The listings themselves (d) are pretty clean, but the hairlines around the thumbnails and the bolder text make them seem slightly more clunky than what you’d see on BizRate. However, pricing information stands out (in fact, prices are so bold you almost miss them, stacked as they are above the Compare Prices button) and the general presentation is pretty clean.

Shopzilla does give you the option to add possible choices to a list (e) for further comparison.

NexTag.com

NexTag rounds out the top 4 with 10.64% of the shopping search market.

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NexTag’s designers obviously love hairlines and block presentations of information. What happens, however, is that this somewhat restricts the free flow of the eye around the page.

NexTag does the poorest job of delivering scent in the Area of Greatest Promise. They go straight into filtering options (c) without any reinforcement of what you’re looking for. Any reinforcement, in this case bread crumb navigation, is stranded above by the visual barriers created by the column headers and tabs (d).

The listings are fairly clean, but again, the significant difference in font size between the listing title and the rest of the information creates a bit of a visual block that can be a little intimidating to the eye. The product information is not as easily scanned as that of the competitors.

Back to our top of page dividers (d). These hairlines (and the hairlines separating the individual results) create interruptions to free scanning and tend to keep the eye corralled below these lines. Depending on how important things like the bread crumb navigation and related search options (e) could be to the user experience, putting them above the “fence” could be reducing the likelihood that they’ll be seen by the user.

Become.com

Finally, let’s look at an engine I like a lot, but one that’s still finding its slice of market share. Become.com is a relative newcomer to the shopping search space (starting in 2004) and so far they’ve only captured 2% of the market, but look for them to gain ground on the leaders, based on a really clean user experience. I suspect the fact that Jon Glick, who cut his usability teeth with Yahoo, is on board with Become has a lot to do with the clean and well thought out interface.

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I really like the way Become.com delivers in the Area of Greatest Promise (a). Users are looking for product results and Become delivers, high and to the left, just where they should be. It’s great reinforcement of information scent. You’ll notice an interesting button up by the search box marked research (b). Let’s leave that for a moment and I’ll come back to it.

Become’s listings (c) are very scannable and get all the pertinent information across in a typical scanning path. The use of fonts and bolding gives the results page a clean, professional look. Star ratings also introduce some compelling icons to grab attention. Notice the “research it” link as well. More about this in a moment.

Finally, Become is the only engine I saw that offers a color matching filter. Not very applicable when it comes to digital cameras, but it could be handy for apparel or other products. More standard filters are below. The color matching is cool, but I don’t think this should be the filter to be given top billing. I’d move price up to the top, but that’s a relatively minor quibble.

Now, let’s get back to the research button (b), because that’s what really sets Become.com apart from the competition. If you click the button, you get a different presentation of information, specifically for those researching a purchase.

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Here, you see a hybrid of a typical search results page, complete with sponsored links (a), which I suppose is allowable. You can also select different types of content from the buttons (b) at the top, including: product reviews, a buying guide, discussion forums and product details. Obviously, Become.com wants to own a bigger chunk of the buying cycle by offering two views of information, one for shoppers and one for researchers.

They continue to keep a foot in both worlds by offering vertical short cuts, in this case to news stories (c). Search results follow from Become’s own index (d), aimed specifically at those looking at making a purchase, either now or at sometime in the future.

Finally, on the right side of the page, you have product results to choose from.

One other thing that’s interesting about Become.com is their real time search query suggestions as you’re typing in your query.

A lot of thinking has gone into Become’s interface, and I wanted to spend some time looking at it because I think it ups the ante for shopping search.

Bottom line on shopping search

The independents featured here have all beat the big engines at providing a clean, relevant product search experience. It’s one area where the usability teams at Microsoft, Yahoo and Google have not delivered. And the major slice of market share that is owned by the smaller players show that users have made their decisions. Given the growth of online consumer activity, it’s an area the big 3 should be paying more attention to.

Gord Hotchkiss is CEO of Enquiro, a search marketing firm that produces search engine user eye tracking studies and other research. The Just Behave column appears Fridays at Search Engine Land.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Retail | Search & Usability | Search Engines: Shopping Search Engines | Stats: Hitwise | Stats: Popularity | Stats: Search Behavior

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About The Author: is CEO of Enquiro, a search marketing firm that produces search engine user eye tracking studies and other research.

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  • http://www.ymarketing.com/ Ryan Lash

    Hey Gord,

    Thank you for the very insightful articles, it’s nice to see this vertical getting a little spot of limelight.

    Have you come across any eye tracking studies specifically focused on the shopping engines?

    I’d be curious to see if they indeed follow the same golden triangle principle of traditional search engines.

    Also, I thought is was very timely of Google to transition Froogle into becoming their ‘Product Search’ only 5 days after your less-than-stellar review (last article :).

    Cheers!

    -Ryan

 

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