Shopping Toolbars – Clippy the Paper Clip on Steroids

Clippy the Paper Clip
Remember Clippy the Paper Clip? Remember how much you hated Clippy?

On the surface, Shopping toolbars make sense. A consumer is on an ecommerce site looking at computers, he goes to a product page, and comparative pricing information pops up in front of the browser, as a sidebar, or from the top/bottom of the page. The consumer then sees that the product can be acquired at a better rate on another site and therefore clicks through to the other merchant and orders the product. In this scenario, the consumer is happy because he gets a better price. The company providing the shopping toolbar and the comparative pricing information is happy because the consumer clicked on what is most likely (although not always) a paid link which = $$$. The merchant who made the sale is happy as that merchant’s marketing dollars were well spent on that shopping toolbar.

Doesn’t that sound simple? Everyone except the original merchant is benefiting…and that original merchant probably has his own deal with the toolbar company and steals customers away from competitors all the time. So again, on the surface, shopping toolbars seem great.

However, I’m not going to be using NexTag’s toolbar, Dealio’s toolbar (Beta), ActiveShopper’s toolbar, or SquareTrade’s SideBar, and I wouldn’t recommend these toolbars to anyone.

For many reason, I’m sticking with my Yahoo!, Google, and SideStep toobars, plus DING!.

To understand my opinion on shopping toolbars, you need to know a little more about my history with downloadable applications. My name is Brian Smith, and I worked at WhenU for 9 months. Keep coming back, it works if you work it. [I have a feeling that the majority of readers will not get that joke and that’s a good thing!]

While at WhenU, I worked on downloadable applications such as toolbars. In my 9 months at the company, I helped develop and market a football news toolbar (it’s not active anymore, but read through the about us/help section for details), coupon toolbar, anti-spyware toolbar, and a general searchbar. Were these toolbars successful? It depends on your definition of success. I’m not going to share specific numbers since I’m under a nice little WhenU NDA, but just ask yourself if you’re using a WhenU toolbar. Do you know anyone who is using a WhenU toolbar?

The problem with these new shopping toolbars is that in my mind, they are readily associated with Adware/Spyware. Most people have multiple spyware blockers on their computers and when you download the Dealio, SquareTrade, ActiveShopper, or NexTag toolbar (or when you run a scan) you’re told that it’s potentially a threat. Does the Dealio toolbar actually do sinister things like keystroke logging? No. Does it give you pop ups? No. But that’s no longer the point. It’s still a downloadable application which, in the mind of the consumer, could be doing sinister things. I think that people are now hyper-sensitive to spyware and take few chances. I trust Yahoo! I trust Google. I trust SideStep. I trust SouthWest Airlines [maker of DING!]. I probably trust these companies a LOT more than I should. Google, for one, tracks a LOT of information.

So the question is whether these new shopping toolbars offer enough value to the consumer to outweight potential trust issues. I’m not going to write reviews of all these bars as already did so: NexTag toolbar, Dealio toolbar, and SquareTrade toolbar – but I think you know my answer to the question.

Beyond the spyware stigma, another problem is the frequency of engagement. I like SideStep’s toolbar because it interacts with me only 1-2x per month – when I’m booking travel. I like the Google and Yahoo! toolbars because they sit there patiently, waiting for me to interact with them.

However, the shopping toolbars were always getting in my way. NexTag continuously popped-up or showed up in the left side of the browser window. Dealio faithfully dropped down price alerts in front of me and ActiveShopper did the same. The problem is that I’m a frequent browser and the idea of always seeing a notice to compare prices just pissed me off. Add that to the fact that I already have quick and easy access to Yahoo! Shopping (as well as Yahoo! Search, Yahoo! News, etc.) through my trusty and unobtrusive Yahoo! toolbar and Froogle (as well as Google Search, Google News, etc.) through my trusty and unobtrusive Google toolbar.

Yes, there are ways to change the user preferences, but that’s not the point. As a representative from a major player in the downloadable toolbar market explained, a good toolbar is “there when you want it. You shouldn’t be reminded of Microsoft Agents like Clippy the Paper Clip or Max the Dog” – the little applications that made you cringe the fourth, sixth, and ninth time you saw them.

But maybe my aversion to these shopping toolbars is unique. Maybe most people don’t browse through shopping sites all day. So are these toolbars being downloaded thousands of times? The following numbers are from and correspond to Windows downloads…

Last week, NexTag’s toolbar was downloaded 18 times. It’s been downloaded 733 times since it was introduced on August 14, 2005. Last week, Dealio’s toolbar was downloaded 13 times (and last week was its debut on the site). To put these numbers in perspective, Yahoo!’s toolbar was downloaded 10,000 times last week and Google’s toolbar was downloaded 2,250 times last week. isn’t a perfect indication of popularity, but I think you get the picture.

If I were working at these companies, I’d spend more time on the core shopping comparison experience – comprehensiveness, categorization/normalization/grouping, ratings, feeds, merchandising, fee structure, etc. – and less time on downloadable apps. And if my expertise wasn’t in the shopping comparison space, then I wouldn’t get into it by way of a toolbar.

11 Responses to Shopping Toolbars – Clippy the Paper Clip on Steroids

  1. […] ng sinister things. I highly recommend reading Brian’s Shopping Toolbar rundown at Shopping Toolbars – Clippy the Paper Clip on Steroids.

    Posted by — […]

  2. John Doe says:

    Nextag and are desperately trying to grow and maintain organic traffic because traffic acquisition costs are so high at this point. They see google and yahoo having enormous success with their toolbars but there is a big difference in the way users interact with a search toolbar vs. a shopping toolbar. Search is vertical agnostic tool and is used for everything so its nice to have a searchbox right on your desktop.

    Shopping toolbars are only good for shopping– If you want to shop and already know about Nextag and, its much easier to go to their website than have to deal with a shopping toolbar that takes up real estate on your desktop 24/7. You don’t need the persistent presence.

  3. Greg Yardley says:

    Good article.

    If I were NexTag or – which I’m not – I would produce a version of the toolbar that’s sans toolbar – as unobtrusive as possible without being ignorable. Perhaps a single icon down in the status bar that indicates the presence (and number) of different results? Maybe a Greasemonkey-script-like function (except for IE) that would add NexTag result listings to the actual SERPs when someone was searching for a product? Google’s increasing adding additional links at the top of the search results pages – dictionary definitions, Froogle listings, news items, etc. – so users are already used to content appearing there.

    Point being – I think there’s still plenty of experimentation to be done with downloadable applications and browser addons. Once one’s made sufficiently unannoying, then the challenge is to get someone to download them. My suggestion – tie it to user registration and then randomly give away a small prize or two to a user once daily as bait.

  4. Preston Wily says:

    Way to say it like it is, Brian.

    As a marketer I also use the alexa toolbar. My question is why doesn’t Amazon (owner of Alexa) add a button to the toolbar for price comparison? I know this isn’t amazon’s core focus, but I think the idea of bundling the comparison shopping feature with an existing reputable toolbar makes more sense than building a user base from the ground up.

    I do recognize that there are potential problems since the “reputable” toolbars have a vested interest in not helping the comparison shopping sites, but I still think it’s something they should consider…

  5. Dwain Kline says:

    I don’t yhink that you should lump ActiveShopper in with the other toolbars. I use it all of the time and there is no spyware attached or any other file. It does not gather info on me and works like a charm. Take a real hard look at Activeshopper.

  6. Brian Smith says:

    I lumped in ActiveShopper as a shopping toolbar, not as adware/spyware. I don’t technically consider NexTag, Dealio, SideStep, Y!, or Google adware/spyware either.

    Thnx for reading.

  7. Pat Roison says:

    You nailed it. Those shopping toolbars are incredibly annoying, and definitely not the future. Half the time I can find better deals on shopping websites anyway.

  8. Brian,

    As the CEO of Vendio, the company that created the Dealio Toolbar, I read your blog this morning with great interest.

    I agree with the reasons you offered regarding why “on the surface” shopping toolbars make sense. In addition to the points you raised, there are a couple other key factors that make a shopping toolbar, or general search toolbar for that matter, more convenient, efficient, and user friendly than visiting a website.

    1. Toolbars save you time. Rather than having to type in a new URL or click on a bookmark/favorite to visit a website, you can simply type your query right in the search box in the toolbar.
    2. Shopping toolbars take the time and effort out of comparison shopping. No one likes to overpay for anything, but different shoppers have different buying habits. Some will spend hours hunting the best deal, while others are quick to pay for convenience. Many online shoppers are willing to spend time searching for deals on digital cameras and other big ticket items, but are hesitant to go through the time consuming process of visiting several comparison shopping sites to save money on less expensive items. Shopping toolbars help online buyers save money on all types of items without having to take the time to hunt around for the best price.

    Shopping toolbars make sense, as do search toolbars. Much like you, I am a big fan of the Google Toolbar and SideStep. What sets them apart in my opinion is the successful execution of the concept. Not all Shopping toolbars are created equal, and some are far less intrusive than others. I trust that you found Dealio to be the least intrusive of the shopping toolbars you evaluated. Dealio takes up much less real estate than Active Shopper and triggers less frequently. Unlike the other shopping toolbars, Dealio only triggers on product pages, not search queries. When it does trigger, the alert is easy to ignore as the small button on the toolbar simply flashes orange a few times. There are other key differences worth noting. Unlike other shopping toolbars, the Dealio Toolbar is only 31 pixels high. Unlike NexTag, it does not cover or hide any of the content on the page the user is visiting. We went through great lengths during our user testing to ensure that were perceived as helpful and not intrusive by users.

    I share your belief that in the same manner that so many of the adware and spyware companies have made consumers sensitive to and even wary of downloadable applications, these more intrusive shopping toolbars are creating a higher adoption hurdle for truly consumer friendly applications like Dealio to gain adoption. However, they also make it much easier for Dealio to stand out from the crowd.

    The Dealio Toolbar has been downloaded thousands of times and the consumer reaction to the form factor and interface has been extremely positive. Having said that, it is a Beta product and there is definitely room for improvement. We are focused on expanding its comprehensiveness and improving the relevancy of the query engine. When Dealio is formally launched in a few weeks, it will offer results from thousands more merchants. Over the coming months, users will experience better search relevancy and even greater category and merchant expansion.

    In my opinion, the consumer benefit of shopping toolbars will outweigh potential trust issues. Vendio is an established and trusted brand that helps tens of thousands of merchants sell over $500 million of merchandise each year. That trust will extend to the Dealio brand over time as well. Much in the same way that a significant and growing number of search queries are happening through Google’s toolbar, a significant portion of shopping queries will happen from shopping toolbars. But some are definitely better than others and the key, as you point out, is to provide consumer value without being obtrusive or annoying.

  9. Pete says:

    I completely agree with “Rodrigo Sales”. Shopping toolbars make sense, as do search toolbars.


  10. Loan says:

    Nextag and are desperately trying to grow and maintain organic traffic because traffic acquisition costs are so high at this point.

  11. Rob Weber says:

    There are several new shopping toolbars and other shopping browser add-ons worth a try these days. Some of my favorites are uPromise’s TurboSaver, PriceGong, SmartShopper, Yapta (for travel), FatWallet, and ShopAtHome.

    If you work at a shopping toolbar or shopping browser add-on, and are looking to increase your distribution, check out the website for the company I co-founded, W3i ( We have distributed tens of millions of shopping toolbars and shopping browser add-ons on behalf of trusted third parties.

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