The Latest E-Commerce Scapegoat

When all else fails, blame the bots.

That’s right: It’s not the e-tailers’ fault that their Web sites can’t handle the hits, or that their servers wilt when automated programs enter the picture alongside human beings. It’s not their fault that some guy in Omaha has to wait nine minutes for a page to load. Don’t blame us, e-tailers say. Blame the Web bots.

And bots make an easy target. They can’t defend themselves, and their usefulness is seriously in doubt. But to say that they are a major cause of the slowdowns and other problems cropping up on the Web is just another attempt to shift blame away from where it belongs — with e-tailers themselves.

Good Morning, Hal

E-tailers could at least point to the real source of the problem — Sony. The Internet search robots wouldn’t be nearly as much of an issue if not for PlayStation 2.

The shortage of game consoles caused a mad scramble both online and off, with automated search bots clogging any site that had even an outside chance of getting a PS2 in stock before Christmas.

So is the message that the Web cannot become a place to buy highly sought-after items? Should e-commerce pare back to books, CDs and pet food? Of course not. So what now? had to find a way to lock out the shopping bots, and that’s fine with me. They found a technological solution to a problem created by technology that was unleashed without regard for what was happening at the other end of the line.

Technology, Heal Thyself

That’s exactly what shopping bots are — neat little bits of technology that would be better suited to the Web in 2010, when high-speed fiber-optic networks are the norm and everyone has a broadband connection. However, just because they’re ahead of the curve is no reason to whine and whimper about their existence or the havoc they cause.

After all, bots are not a new development. A year ago, they were being both touted and warned against by e-tailers, analysts and journalists alike. Back then, though, the biggest concern seemed to be that the bots would make it easier for shoppers to avoid actually visiting an e-commerce site.

That is still a concern, but not an insurmountable obstacle. E-tailers should provide compelling reasons for shoppers to visit their sites, and they are on their way to doing so by building brand and establishing bases of loyal customers, who can be rewarded with special offers that bots will never lay their electronic eyes on.

Price War & Peace

In any case, an industry-wide change should help e-tailers curtail the bots. The drive — indeed, the outright need — to record profits is making it less and less likely that items will be sharply and steeply discounted by all but the most kamikaze of online merchants.

Yes, there will still be price differences, and the bigger e-tailers will be able to shave margins more, but vast price contrasts will be a thing of the past.

There’s another line of defense as well, one that bot users may soon realize. Bots, by their very nature, cannot make subtle but necessary distinctions that go beyond price.

So if the same book costs $15 at one online store and $12 at another, the bot will show the shopper the $12 price. But the $15 e-tailer may have better customer service — something the shopper may not realize until it takes an extra three days for the purchase to arrive, or it turns out to be the wrong book and has to be returned.

Have a Human Day

Maybe the PS2 crush was all but impossible to predict. But e-tailers should be making it a rule in general to plan for the worst while hoping for the best. Those worst-case scenarios should include sudden surges of page views and other unforeseen events. After all, what consumer will trust an industry that can be crippled by unseen robots?

When all is said and done, e-commerce needs to learn to live with shopping bots. Period.It should stop fearing them and, above all else, it should stop blaming them for its own shortcomings.

Just don’t hold your breath.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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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.

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