Easy Money – Set Your Inner Blogger Free

May 31, 2006

I’ve been out of the email newsletter business for a while, so I don’t know current cost per thousand (CPM) ad rates, but I estimate that a targeted shopping newsletter emailed to a couple million people gets around a $5 CPM. With millions (or actually 10s of millions) of consumers visiting shopping comparison engines every month, there’s amazing potential to use email newsletters as a significant revenue generating tool.

Even if that wasn’t the case, email newsletters are a great way to stay in touch with consumers and notify them about special deals/promos, new items of interest, or advice on buying the latest and greatest red sweater. Newsletters can be all about selling, all about engaging, all about educating, or all about nothing (hey, it worked for Seinfeld). When done right, they encourage loyalty and therefore drive down acquisition costs and increase lifetime value.

Newsletters alone are great, and PriceGrabber and MySimon have two of the best shopping comparison engine newsletters out there…MySimon even puts a link to its newsletter on every page of its site. Smart.

In this day of that wacky thing called the world wide web, though, the shopping comparison engines are missing the boat on an incredible opportunity. Blogging. I know all the excuses for not blogging…blogs are only read by other bloggers…blogs are so cliche…blogs are so yesterday…we don’t have the time to blog…we’re a technology company, not a blogging company…email newsletters are good enough…

Enough negativity. Blogs are read by many people besides bloggers. Bloggers can be cliche, but if done correctly, they can be innovative and powerful. To start out, it will take 10 minutes a day to blog. You have time…and more importantly, blogs can pay for themselves (more in a bit). If you’re just a technology company, you could hire an editor (again, I’ll talk about the economics in a second). If email newsletters work for you, at least test out this additional acquisition channel.

Benefits?
-Quality blogs quickly and efficiently get picked up by search engines
If your SEO team hasn’t insisted on developing blogs, the whole team should be fired. Seriously. All the shopping comparison engines rely heavily on organic traffic from search engines. Type in any shopping term into Google or Yahoo! and you can see the shopping engines duking it out. And you’ll see listings for multiple engines owned by the same company…Dealtime is Shopping.com, Calibex is NexTag, etc. A blog will enable you to potentially get another listing high on the search engine.

-Blogs can drive sales.
I know you’re skeptical, so bear with me for a second. SparkleLikeTheStars, produced by Ice.com, is the best shopping blog on the web. The blog dishes celebrity fashion, style, and gossip along with a healthy dose of what Ice.com knows best, Jewelry. Each post takes a look at the jewelry a celebrity is wearing and recommends similar products sold by Ice.com so everyone can sparkle like the stars. And you know what? It drives sales. It was started on a whim, but soon turned into a real sales channel with a dedicated resource. I can’t remember the revenue figures Pinny Gniwish mentioned at Internet Retailer earlier this year, but we’re talking about serious dough. And combined with the boost in natural search traffic to Ice.com, SparkleLikeTheStars (along with Ice.com’s other blogs) is a success story.

Glam’s blog network is another great example. I don’t know about the overall business model of the company, but sites like What’s Haute and Getting Hitched could easily be duplicated by the shopping comparison engines…add a couple links to selected products as seen in SparkleLikeTheStars…and you’re off to the races.

Ok, I’m not saying this a full proof strategy or that blogging will be an overnight success, but at the very least, it’s worth a test. And this can be fun. Take a chance. Follow the lead of the Evogear which is testing out some blogs right now. Nathan Decker, Evogear’s Director of eCommerce explains:

I do have a couple of more “progressive” *blush* marketing initiatives in the works. I am developing a tributary content network designed to serve 3 purposes, 1) to communicate the flavor of our company (anti-notfunny component & authenticity / credibility) 2) to feed qualified traffic to evogear.com 3) to give various solid team members a side project to leverage creativity and talent.

Right now we have 2 live content nodes. Check out MugatuSays and Evo Update both managed by team members here at Evo. My only reservation about Mugatu is that it may violate our core value of Respect… its just so damn funny. We will see how that evolves moving forward. We have another content node in the works which will feature comprehensive reviews of products by our buying team who all have a tremendous amount of head knowledge but no mechanism to get it out there to the world as of yet.

Check out this MugatuSays post. Ok, I don’t expect every company to be willing to take blogging to this extreme, but at least listen to Nathan’s tip “to give various solid team members a side project to leverage creativity and talent.” Now, Evogear has a long way to go, but at least the company is testing.

My recommendations:
1. Get a newsletter up and running immediately. 2 million subscribers at a $5 CPM can net over $100K a year.
2. At the very least, post your email newsletters on your website close to the root domain (don’t send people to mail.nameofemailprovider.com/email/nameofcompany, send them to http://www.nameofcompany.com/email) so it will get spidered by the search engines. Oh, and add a ‘subscribe to newsletter’ link to every page of your site. This is e-commerce 101.
3. Cross out #2 and post your emails as blog entries.
4. Hire (or poach) a blogger with a passion (toys, shoes, camcorders, blenders…it really doesn’t matter), pay them $40,000 base salary + a commission based on revenue attained through the blog.
5. Get every merchant account representative to blog about great deals, cool products, ugliest dresses, etc. This will not only create a network of blogs, but even more importantly, will create a more engaging and rewarding relationship with your merchants. Merchants will want to talk to their account reps to get highlighted in the blogs. Account reps will better understand the goals of their merchants. Win-win.
6. Be creative. SparkleLikeTheStars, What’s Haute, and Mugatu Says are the tip of the iceberg. Do a little research, sit down with the cooler kids at your company, check out MySpace groups, ask me for some ideas (but if you’re a comparison engine, don’t try to pay me). Read ComparisonEngines. Ok, I didn’t say it explicitly, but I’m still waiting for Shopzilla to start up a blog featuring comics and associated products from Peanuts, Dilbert, and Over The Hedge (yes, United Media, a Scripps company owns the right to the comic which the upcoming movie is based on). And where was the nice tie in with the Scripps National Spelling Bee/Akeelah and the Bee? (Sorry, David!)
7. Just test. We’re all busy. This is most likely a low priority, but it’s also low hanging fruit.

Update: Check out David Beach’s post for a list of additional shopping blogs. Maybe one of the shopping comparion engines should roll them up.


Shopping.com Lowers Fee for Crawling

May 30, 2006

On March 29, I wrote:

Dulance, according to Sergei, was a 2nd generation comparison engine because of the breadth of merchant coverage. While we’re still living in a 1st generation comparison engine world, I’m a believer that services like Dulance will soon become a powerful force in e-commerce. Shopzilla recognizes this as the company is supplementing its feeds with crawled results. Shopping.com as far as I’m able to tell, doesn’t recognize this. Shopping.com has the ability to crawl a site, but it charges $750 to do so…if Shopping.com believed in becoming a 2nd generation shopping search engine and providing the best shopping search experience possible, the company would cut this fee to just south of $0.01.

While Shopping.com didn’t listen to me and lower the fee to $0.00, the crawling service is now listed as having a $300 set up fee with a $20 monthly crawler maintenance fee. It’s a start.


Quick Links

May 30, 2006

I wanted to throw out a couple quick links to keep you satisfied…excuse the typos and poor grammar. I just wanted to get this up ASAP. Back to regularly scheduled shopping search coverage soon.

-Check out MyProductAdvisor
Even with wikis and buying guides, I don’t think the shopping comparison engines really help consumers figure out what to buy. Part of the reason is probably that the shopping engines aren’t incentivized to do so…in a lot of cases, they are looking to monetize the user as efficiently as possible. MyProductAdvisor is an unbiased service which advises consumers on selecting the right Autos, Digital Cameras,Cell Phones (just launched), TVs, and PDAs. I used the TV advisor system and was thoroughly impressed at the comprehensive nature of the advisor. There are no ads on the site and MyProductAdvisor is not a shopping comparison engine (although they partner with PriceGrabber on the back end). The parent company, Market Insight Corporation, acts as a real-time intelligence panel, selling the data to manufacturers.

-The Farhad show is running over at Electronic Retailing Magazine
Farhad Mohit, Shopzilla’s Chief Product Officer, is on the cover of this month’s issue.

-As merchant reputations are a hot subject right now (and I’ll have a post or two in the next week about the topic), I wanted to highlight Rapleaf as an interesting model. Reminds me of a ‘stealth’ start up I worked on in 2001 called Project Napa. Check out what Michael Arrington and Matt Marshall have said about the company.

-Last week RootMarkets announced it had closed a round of financing which included an investment from the NYTimes (via PaidContent). Congrats to the Root team!

-Today Openlist announced it was acquired by Marchex. I’m an avid Openlist user. More at VerticalSearch and, more importantly, Greg Sterling’s blog. Congrats to the Openlist team!

-A quick shout out to Garrett French at Search Engine Lowdown. He consistently has great coverage of the search space.

-Become.com launched a ‘grid view’ for displaying product search results. When you mouse over the results, you get additional information and links to compare prices, add to favorites, and research. Here’s an example for toasters. Nice to see an engine trying something new in terms of UI.

-Mini-Microsoft is taking a break
I love reading Mini-Microsoft…sad to see the site’s owner will not be posting regularly. Sunday’s Seattle Times (found through Frank Barnako) has more.


eBay Live! 2006, Internet Retailer 2006

May 28, 2006

I unfortunately won’t be able to attend Internet Retailer 2006 next week.

However, I’ll be at eBay Live 2006 June 12 – June 15 if anyone would like to meet up. Schedule is getting pretty tight, but shoot me an email, and we’ll figure something out…


Jim Barr, GM of Microsoft Marketplaces

May 23, 2006

As I mentioned in a recent post, I have a lot of questions about Microsoft’s ecommerce strategy. I hope to get to the bottom of some of those questions over the next couple months. In the meantime, I just wanted to better understand Microsoft’s vision on launching Windows Live Shopping and Windows Live Product Search in addition to maintaining MSN Shopping.

Following is my conversation with Jim Barr, GM for the Microsoft Shopping & Marketplaces team. I basically just asked Jim for an introduction. Thanks to Jim and everyone who helped me set this up…

“We really like the comparison shopping business and think retailers can realize a great ROI, and we want to make sure we have the best comparison shopping experience. We really feel like we have a great product with MSN Shopping.”

“Search is very important. Half of the shopping starts in search. 15-25% of all searches go to a shopping site. MSN search will not win unless we are good at commerce search. That’s a strong reason why we invested.”

“Some might assume we should wait to launch innovative services until we have the end game figured out. The reality is that with the internet, we think we should get good ideas out their that help achieve the needs of online shoppers. At the core, we want to help people find the products they are looking for and then help them confidently decide on the one product from the one retailer that is best for them. In our business, we’ll be successful if we’re 1) driving value for buyers and sellers and 2) growing a vibrant and loyal audience.”

“At present, our core business is MSN Shopping, but we also have 2 very early, very innovative experiences, which we will use to figure out what the best features and experiences are for merchants and consumers.”

“We believe we are at the top of the first in a nine inning game. We don’t have it all figured out and I don’t want [our team] to have to figure out today. We want consumers to tell us what they like best. We don’t have all the answers yet. We don’t know if the audiences [for Windows Live and MSN Shopping] will be the same or different over time. One audience might want a more programmed experience [MSN Shopping] while another audience might want more customization [Windows Live]. Or we could find that one great experience with the best of all the features we’re currently shipping is best. But the point is, you ship innovative stuff as soon as it’s ready and not wait for perfect knowledge about the end-game.”

“MSN Shopping has 40 million items, and we’re always making sure they are the right items. It’s the easiest way to go from a long list of what’s available to a short list of what’s right for you.”

“Windows live shopping is MSN Shopping in Web 2.0 form. We want to see how it’s accepted. The [merchant and product] selection is the same — it’s a different side of the same coin.”

“Windows Live Product Search goes on the presumption that the audience wants to see as much selection as possible. We crawl the web for everything out there. We’re starting with a philosophy that people should be able to search for tail items.”

“Eventually we want to apply as many ways to go from a long list of what’s available to a short list of what’s right for you. We have our goals in mind [to match buyers and sellers] and we want to do what’s right for users.”


Related Posts
My Introduction to MSN Shopping, Windows Live Shopping, and Windows Live Product Search – May 19, 2006
MSN Marketplaces Questions – May 9, 2006
Microsoft Officially Enters the Comparison Shopping Space – July 15, 2005


eCommerce, Microsoft Style

May 19, 2006

Below I explain the difference between MSN’s multiple commerce offerings. MSN Shopping, Windows Live Shopping, and Windows Live Product Search. I’m only really scratching the surface here, so stay tuned for a lot more information.

MSN Shopping = MSN’s core shopping comparison engine offering.
-With the help of PriceGrabber and Shopping.com listings, MSN Shopping covers over 7,000 merchants and 33m products. Merchants can also get on MSN Shopping through graphical advertising. The new MSN Shopping launched July 15, 2005. Read my interview with Chris Jolley, former Group Manager for MSN Shopping, for the original vision. While there’s serious technology behind the site, I’ve focused my coverage of MSN Shopping on the glossy catalog look and feel of the site. And that makes sense as the demographics show that the site is heavily skewed female (75% female, 25% male). I’m not a technologist, so MSN Shopping has been easier for me to grok in a lot of ways. I think the human touch (editorial picks, seasonal shopping, MERCHANDISING, etc.) adds a ton of value to the site.

—–

Windows Live Shopping = The web 2.0 version of MSN Shopping.
-Not available in Firefox. Odd, I’d think that if you’re building a web 2.0 application it needs to be launched in Firefox. Ok, this is MisterSoftee, so maybe not. Anyways, as the MSN Shopping Insider blog explains:

It is the beta launch of Microsoft’s Web 2.0 shopping experience, featuring one of the world’s largest product catalogs, user-created content and an easier-to-use interface built on 100% AJAX technology. Results are displayed in an order that is not affected by advertising; merchants cannot pay to have their items show up closer to the top. Users will be able to drag-and-drop items to a shopping list and share lists with friends; see user reviews of products and sellers; and read and create public shopping guides on any subject.

What is our vision? In the future, Windows Live Shopping will continue to offer the great comparison shopping services you see today, while also integrating more social and community features that will enable users to better research, share, and have fun with their shopping experiences. AJAX will allow us to execute against this vision with a rich user interface that is modularized to capitalize on the gadgets craze.

In other words, the cooler version of MSN Shopping. But it still doesn’t support Firefox.

As Ian McAllister writes in his blog:

That was arguably the first experience within the Shopping team in developing a truly loosely-coupled service. It prompted what you might call a services tidal wave within our team that pre-dated Ray Ozzie’s mail by a few months. Literally three-quarters of the development team went off and worked on a host of different services using the agile method and for the most part, operating independently of the other teams. The cornerstone of our web service platform is the set of core shopping web services that expose the product catalog, attribute refinements, compare and other functionality. Other services include ratings & reviews, wish list and guides.

Windows Live Shopping is essentially a mashup of those services. The great thing is that since the services are not baked into the platform we can expose them outside of shopping to the rest of live.com land and perhaps…to the public.

Once you get running with IE (I upgraded to IE 7.0 Beta 2 SP2 which means I can no longer use Yahoo! Mail Beta), Windows Live Shopping is pretty cool. I wouldn’t go back to MSN Shopping. I need to do a full review, but the special functionality includes drag and drop shopping lists (very smooth), shopping guides (Yahoo! Shoposphere’s Pick Lists and ShopWiki’s Wiki Buying Guides better watch out), and product attribute comparison (easily grab a couple items you like and hit ‘compare’). Great user interface advances. It might take a little while for a newbie to get used to, but Windows Live Shopping is a huge leap forward for the MSN Marketplaces group.

—–

Windows Live Product Search = Microsoft’s Shopping Search Engine.
A shopping search engine crawls the web for merchant and product data. A traditional shopping comparison engine is based on merchant data feeds. I’ve talked about shopping search in reference to Dulance, ShopWiki, and Pronto. Yahoo! Shopping and Shopzilla also crawl the web for products, although it’s unclear to what extent.

Shopping search in theory makes complete sense to me. If only 10,000 companies are submitting product data feeds (maybe 50k for Froogle), then shopping comparison engines are missing out on at least 90% of the stores on the web (most companies I’ve talked to agree that there are over 120,000 e-commerce enabled merchants online). Put very simply, shopping search should provide a much more comprehensive shopping experience. For instance, yesterday I was in the Dallas Fort Worth Airport (DFW) and Duran Duran’s Hungry Like a Wolf was playing (why don’t SFO, SJC and JFK play music like that?). Searching for ‘duran duran shirt’ on Windows Live Product Search returned 16 results, 11 of which actually turned out to be relevant.

-Performing the same search on NexTag returned no results.
-Performing the same search on Shopping.com returned no results.
-Performing the same search on PriceGrabber returned no results.
-Performing the same search on Shopzilla returned 1 listing.
-Performing the same search on Froogle returned 134 results. Great at first glance…as you click through the results, though, the results are mostly eBay listings and there are a ton of CDs (not shirts) mixed into the results. Still, a much better experience than on most of the shopping comparison engines. The power of eBay. Maybe Shopping.com should add more than a below the fold ‘search on eBay’ link.
-Performing the same search on ShopWiki returned 33 results. The first 7 listings are very relevant. Most of the remaining results list shirts for bands like Spinal Tap, AC/DC, Slash, and Neil Young. Not exactly Duran Duran.

As you can see, shopping search sites like Windows Live Product Search and Shopwiki are more comprehensive than some traditional shopping comparison engines. Also, Froogle, with an eBay feed returns a good amount of results.

That’s not to say that Windows Live Product Search is perfect. Far from it. One great benefit of shopping comparison engines is that the merchant must take the time and effort to educate the engine through a data feed. Because of this, more and more results on shopping comparison engines are normalized/standardized. As Shopping.com has explained, the more normalized a product category, the better the conversion rate for the products in that category. A normalized product page on Shopping.com will show the consumer one product and all the merchants thay sell that particular product. This is very difficult to do without a data feed and therefore, at this point, shopping search engines return results that look much more like general Google or Yahoo! search results. Not everyone will be comfortable shopping in this manner.

There are many other differences between shopping search engines and shopping comparison engines, but the blatant one at this point from a consumer facing point of view when looking at Windows Live Product Search is that there are no merchant ratings. Buyer beware. Just because a merchant is included in the index doesn’t mean that it’s a legitimate merchant. While there’s no guarantee on a site like PriceGrabber either, at least PriceGrabber takes the time to review merchants and has processes set up to protect consumers (more on this in another post).

The Windows Live Product Search Beta blog explains the vision behind the site:

At beta, the index will contain products from over 100,000 sellers and this number will continue to grow over time. The project started with the premise of enabling small businesses to be well represented in the index and to enable users to find hard-to-find and unique items. Working with Microsoft Research enabled us to productize the core technology which can algorithmically classify and extract product information from numerous online web sites. It is interesting to note that in addition to indexing products such as toaster ovens and chai tea, the system also indexes commercial offers for vacation rentals to automobiles.

Related Posts:
Former DoubleClick Execs Launch ShopWiki – April 19, 2006
Dulance Not Dead? Dulance And Google? – April 12, 2006
InterActive Corporation’s (IACI) Pronto – April 4, 2006
Dulance – We hardly knew you – March 29, 2006
Dulance – The Long Tail – What Happens When You Move Past Feeds – July 20, 2005


Pronto vs. Windows Defender

May 19, 2006

Windows Defender is Microsoft’s latest anti-spyware program. My version, Windows Defender (Beta 2) came with my new version of internet explorer, IE 7 (Beta 2) SP2. The default setting on Windows Defender is to automatically notify the user if there are any threats to the computer as soon as IE starts up. This is the message I get…

Pronto, Anti-Spyware

It’s already difficult to get people to download programs these days. I hope Pronto is talking to Microsoft about this.


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