Shopping Search and the Small Online Retailer

    May 20, 2003

Shopping search is something all large portal sites attempt to
incorporate into their search functionality in one way or another,
but knowing where you are getting your results from is the
difficult part for most of us. The biggest issue is that nobody
really understands that a search engine is made up of multiple
resources and that is especially true of shopping search.

Forrester Research in concert with recently released an online retail shopping study
in which they conclude:

“Shoppers will increasingly use search engines like Google,
Overture, BizRate, and DealTime to find not only retailers, but
also specific products. As email becomes less effective,
retailers need to learn and test the search engine landscape.”

Forrester Research should at least have a bit more clarity. The
“search landscape” is incredibly diverse. Let’s look at shopping
search as a part of that landscape, but first let’s take a look at
the underlying “geology”.

Here’s a list of Major portals and their shopping search resources
from an unscientific “click to see” tour conducted on May 19, 2003.
I’ll address each of those mentioned by Forrester and then a
couple more.

Google has a shopping search function in ‘beta’ that is free right
now called Froogle at but they also have
a PPC program called “Adwords” that gives paid sponsor listings
along the right side of the normal (non-shopping search) result
screen. Google is pure search when used from the front page or
through any “Google” hosted search box available from thousands of
sites. Standard results here do show those “Adwords” paid
listings, but they are very clearly labled “sponsored links”.
Which is likely to give “shoppers” the best result? If you want
*information* the standard search is best. If you want to visit
the site that has bid the highest for the search phrase you typed,
then by all means, visit that link!

Overture is a Pay-Per-Click engine that nobody uses directly
(can’t go to to search for anything),
searchers see the results from Overture displayed on “partner”
sites and portals like MSN and AOL as “sponsor listings”. Overture
PPC listings are displayed in differing ways by different portals,
but essentially those results are served up to searchers as the
top 3 or 4 results on a page depending on the partnership
relationship Overture has with the portal you do your search from.
Where do you see Overture results? Straight from their “About
Overture” page they tell us “advertisers can bid for placement
in search results that Overture distributes to affiliate partners
such as MSN, Yahoo!, and InfoSpace.”

BizRate and DealTime are specifically “Comparison Shopping Search
Engines” where a business bids for listings in order to have their
products show up in comparison list of like products on a Pay-Per-
Click basis at partnering sites and portals. Although you can go
to those sites directly to do your shopping searches, not many do.
They get those results fed to them by the site they started their
shopping on and seldom consider the source of the results or who
partners with whom to serve them those results.

You’ll often hear people call Yahoo a search engine, when it is in
fact, a directory. Yahoo does have shopping search but it defaults
to their own Yahoo store owners, nothing outside of Yahoo Stores
is served by Yahoo if you start in the page linked from the top of Yahoo
under the “shop” icon or any of the links titled “shopping” at
Yahoo. This means that if Yahoo doesn’t host the store you want to
shop at, then you won’t get any meaningful “comparison” shopping
results but it does fit Yahoo’s paid Directory business model.
If your ecommerce site is hosted by Yahoo stores, then you are
already benefitting from being in their network of shopping sites
and will turn up in searches from Yahoo pages. Consider this if
you can’t afford your own ecommerce site or getting it indexed on
the free search engines.

As mentioned above in the “About Overture” quote, MSN serves
results from Overture PPC from within the search function at MSN
search, but if you start at the MSN front page, (the default home
page for millions of non-tech-savvy consumers who don’t know how
to change their browser settings to display a different home
page), you’ll see that MSN simply links directly to the home pages
of hundreds of huge retailers. Those retailers pay a hefty fee to
MSN to be linked from front page links and more to be linked
throughout the “shopping” sections of MSN in all of the links
displayed on any of those pages at

What does shopping search mean to the small retailer online?
Here’s a rundown of where you should focus your energy in the
shopping search game.

1) Once you have an online presence, make certain you have your
site optimized for the search engines by including LOTS of good
text-based information about your company, your products, your
ingredients, your industry and your company philosophy throughout
your site. This is the basis for turning up in what is called
“organic” search results. Those results that are free and show up
on non-paid searches. You’ll do best when you limit graphics and
images to small logos and product photos. Include your keywords
often in page text, “title” metatags, text links, headlines and
body text. This represents the least expensive strategy.
I have a small client that has never spent a dime on advertising
but his site ranks number one for the phrase “fragrance free
lotion” which I’m proud to say we achieved for him with simple
optimization techniques. Check his ranking at any google partner
site. Here’s a search on that reflects his search phrase. To learn more about those techniques visit

2) When you’ve optimized your site for all the important search
phrases for your product or service, then move on to the next
level of shopping search marketing, Pay-Per-Click advertising.
This strategy allows you to gain top positions or at least
increase your visibility through being one of those “sponsored
links” that is displayed above and beside those “organic” search
listings at dozens of large portals and search sites. To learn
more about that type advertising visit the following articles
describing PPC engines and programs in more detail.

3) If you operate an ecommerce web site that competes with major
name-brand retailers for organic search terms as well as PPC
phrases then you may find it more economical to contact one of
those shopping search engines. BizRate and DealTime are both PPC
shopping search programs where you become a part of their list of
comparison of like products, so be prepared to see your
competitors listed here as well. But the benefit of being in the
same area as your competitors is well known and understood by
major retailers who will sometimes open up new stores right beside
well-established competitors to gain new customers. See or

4) Finally, search outperforms advertising in most circumstances
on the web. There is no question that Forrester research have it
right when they say, “retailers need to learn and test the search
engine landscape.” Be aware of the fact that advertising is an
interruption to any surfers who are looking for information
online, but search is an active move to FIND INFORMATION
about products and services online and search results that provide more
information first, will show up first in any search. Only after
you’ve provided that information on your site should you consider
paying for your traffic in any form, including PPC or those
shopping search sites. Here’s an article discussing search versus
advertising online.

Mike Banks Valentine operates SEOptimism, Offering SEO training of
in-house content managers
as well as the Small Business Ecommerce Tutorial at and blogs about SEO at
where this article appears with live links to SMO stories, buttons, blog posts and examples.