Are Search Engines an E-Commerce Anachronism?

E-commerce is growing up. The signs are everywhere.

For one thing, the world’s 600 million Internet users willspend more than US$1trillion online by the end of this year, accordingto research firm IDC.

But in its burgeoning adolescence, e-commerce isstretching the seams of some Internet traditions –and search engines are on the front lines.

Increasingly, mainstream e-shoppers no longer wander aimlessly in search of products. They have shopping lists, favorite online stores, and very little time to spare.

And the phrase “surf the Web,” although lodged in the popularvernacular, grows more obsolete by the day.

Familiar Patterns

Clearly, people doing research online will continue torely on search engines like Google to siftthrough the sea of Internet content.

But shoppers will turn less and less often to search enginesin order to locate products. Indeed, some published reports indicate a measurable decline in search engine use over the past year.

Why? For one thing, online shoppers are starting toresemble offline shoppers. How often do you thumbthrough the yellow pages when making routine offlinepurchases?

You don’t. You know exactly where to go to buy pet food,stereo equipment or books. As e-commerce tricklesdown to the mainstream population, it is no surprisethat online shopping patterns are shifting to matchoffline behaviors.

Bookmarking Brands

In addition, brand is starting to mean something on the Internet.In each major product category, a small handful ofe-tailers invariably stand out.

Companies like (Nasdaq: AMZN), Travelocity(Nasdaq: TVLY) and EBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) have virtualheadlocks on customer mindshare.

And consumers list these sites in their Internetbookmark files so they can find them fast for quick shopping trips, omitting the search engine middleman from the process.

Clear Destinations

What is more, very few — if any — pure-play e-retailers remain. Amazon continues to signbrick-and-mortar partners such as Target (NYSE: TGT) andCircuit City (NYSE: CC) to service the ever-presentmultichannel consumer.

And traditional companies like Lands’ End and Sears (NYSE: S) areintegrating their online arms with the rest of theiroperations and marketing efforts.

As a result, brand loyalty is spreading acrossmultiple sales channels, reaching wider populations ofshoppers. Integrated marketing campaigns adeptlyshuttle customers between specific Web sites, catalogsand stores.

Sparse competition from pure e-tailers makes theseintegrated campaigns more effective — and, conversely,makes broad Internet searches more archaic.

Main Event

The next phase of e-commerce will relegate searchengines even more solidly to a backup role. With theadvent of Web Services, consumers presumably will login at a single location and will conduct multiple relatedtransactions with multiple merchants.

Dollar Rent a Car(NYSE: DTG), for instance, uses Web Services to linkits reservation system with airlines’ sites, allowingtravelers to reserve rental cars without leaving anairline’s Web site.

As more merchants forge such marketing and technologypartnerships, e-commerce will become moreevent-driven than product-driven.

That is, consumers will conduct purchases related to abusiness trip or will make new home purchases as a series ofrelated online shopping tasks. Therefore, making travelarrangements or buying furniture will no longerrequire a-la-carte transactions.

Crashing Search Party

In viral shopping scenarios like this, the process of searching theWeb for a discrete product will have become outmoded.

We may be months or even years away from broad-basedadoption of Web Services.

But even today, with strong multichannel brands,search engines are becoming more exclusively the toolsof researchers than of shoppers.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

1 Comment

  • I think Mark’s right – search engines are losing the battle for online shoppers. I don’t necessarily buy into the theory that online shoppers have become more “brand loyal,” but they have grown sick and tired of pulling up irrelevant search engine returns – links to sites that have little or no relevance to the products or services they may be shopping for.

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