Commerce Search Puts Google Inside Retailers’ Catalogs

Google has introduced a search engine for online retailers. Priced at US$50,000 annually, the Software as a Service offering is aimed at high-end e-commerce operations that want to provide customers looking for a particular product on their site with more accurate search results.

Search is arguably one of the weakest features on most retailers’ sites, providing little more than rudimentary functionality. A common complaint is that filters are very weak, with most vertical engines unable to parse out the difference between, for example, “digital” cameras and “high resolution” cameras. Usually, the consumer is confronted with a product dump of every camera and camera-related option.

Google’s Commerce Search addresses that problem by analyzing every item in the data feed using proprietary signals to determine its placement in the result set. Parametric search-and-sorting functionality allows users to refine or sort results by category, price or brand.

It also includes features that allow retailers to boost the relevance of certain items, or highlight specific products during a sale in a bid to cross-sell related products.

First Retail Play

This is Google’s first product built exclusively for the retail industry, Nitin Mangtani, lead product manager at Google Enterprise Search, told the E-Commerce Times.

Google is, at the moment, not considering scaling down the offering for small and mid-sized retailers. “We have a wide variety of search products, obviously, a lot of which would work well for them,” Mangtani said. “Of course, we will be evaluating the feedback and base our decision making on that.”

It’s not likely there would be much demand amoung smaller retailers, Mangtani said, noting “these are high-end features that are better suited for an enterprise-sized retailer.”

Between 20 and 30 U.S. and UK retailers tested the application; one of the early adopters was Birkenstock. The company had previously been using a text-based search engine, but realized that users could not find the exact products they were looking for, according to Google. Other e-commerce search alternatives reportedly were cost-prohibitive.

Underserved Niche

Retailers eager for better search functionality will welcome Commerce Search, Greg Belkin, a retail research analyst with the Aberdeen Group, told the E-Commerce Times. For starters, it is being delivered as a SaaS offering, which means no complex integration is required.

“The research that Aberdeen has done [shows] that incrementalism rules the day, as opposed to ripping and replacing,” said Belkin. “It is also serving an industry niche that has been terribly served to this point.”

Still, Google Commerce Search is not all that it could be, he suggested. “Google has good search functionality, but the display of those results is weak,” and display is integral to retailers’ online operations.

Also, Commerce Search is not connected to AdWords — another deficiency, according to Belkin. “It can integrate to its analytics application, so why not AdWords?”

In other words, it allows retailers to measure how well the search function is working, but not to match up paid ads against that activity.

Holiday Season 2009

Commerce Search enters the market just in time to help online retailers fight for a piece of the US$44.7 billion in online retail sales expected this holiday season — an 8 percent increase over last year, according to Forrester’s latest projections. During last year’s disastrous season, online retail sales in the U.S. grew just 5 percent.

Other promising, albeit conservative, indicators of growth in this category:

  • Another Forrester survey of more than 4,000 U.S. online consumers showed that 94 percent of those who made a purchase online within the past three months planned to continue to buy online during the coming holiday season.
  • In addition, 72 percent of retailers surveyed in “The State Of Retailing Online,” a Shop.org study conducted by Forrester in Q3 of this year, said they expected online holiday sales to increase over last year.

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