As I reported early yesterday, Smarter made some changes to its site. I talked with Smarter Co-founder Harry Tsao on Monday [not everyone took a long weekend] about the site update. Following the Q&A are my thoughts…
The new ranking order…
“The old ranking was based on how much a merchants was willing to pay which led to some less than perfect merchants making it to the top; people who cross sell or upsell aggressively. The Smarter Choice, now the first result on product searches, can no longer be bought. It’s the best price from a Smarter Certified Store. Below that, we list the 5 merchants who are paying the most and below that the merchants are ordered by a an algorithm which looks at around 20 factors.” [Editor's Note: The Smarter Choice is only available in the SKU and UPC code associated categories.]
“Ultimately, it adds to the comprehensiveness of the consumer experience. Merchants don’t provide 100% of products into data feeds. If they can’t make money on a product, they aren’t going to put it in data feed. [In crawling], we’re saying everything is important. A merchant is not going to list a $0.05 toilet seat washer, but if you’re looking for it, we want to have it. We think going deep and wide is good for the long term. Going beyond 60k stores is good. [Other comparison engines] will say that beyond the first 20 merchants for a product, there isn’t much value. We think that having 150 merchants is more valuable. From a monetization point of view, it doesn’t add value per session, but if someone has 20 sellers and we have 150 sellers, that’s reassuring to consumers.”
“So far, it’s not a free crawl. We’ve given the crawler a set of sites we want [it to visit], and we’re very specific on what we want back. In the future, we want [a crawler] to let loose. Crawling for products is very difficult and SKU association is tough.”
Clustering [or as I like to say, attribute extraction, but I’m sure some techie will tell me why my nomenclature is wrong]…
“It’s just for the apparel category right now. Before the update, on the left hand side, we’d have a couple headings like ‘Brands’, ‘Stores’, ‘Price Range’, but now we have [for Jeans] ‘Color’, ‘Features’, ‘Material’, ‘Pant Fit’, etc. When you click on ‘women’s jeans’, you’re asking the search engine for about 500 results. [The engine] might look at all the titles and descriptions and see ‘boot leg’. This is all done on the fly.”
“Comparing the old results and new results is like comparing night and day. But clustering is really difficult. In apparel alone, we’re looking at 1988 attribute labels (like material) and 31,000 attribute values (like cotton). This is all done through technology. There’s no manual labor involved.”
“As part of the crawling effort, in the next week or 2, we are adding expert reviews from over 50 sites.”
“When we first started, we were playing catch up and learning what we needed to be done. After 2 years, we felt like our site was getting too cluttered. It was a patch job. We really wanted to clean it up.”
While the choice of colors is a little tough to swalow, I think the updated look and feel for Smarter.com is an important change. Shopzilla, Shopping.com, and NexTag (among others) just look old and are WAY overdue for a Web 2.0 look and feel. And I’m not saying that these companies should just throw up some AJAX or Ruby on Rails to look hipper. Someone has to take a chance and thow something up completely different. Yahoo! Shopping had a job description hinting at this, but if we see any changes there, I have a feeling it will be very gradual. Shopping.com should take PriceTool or DealTime (please!) and go crazy. NexTag could do the same thing with Calibex.
As for the new ranking, just as I think it’s smart that PriceRunner returns the lowest price first, I really like that the first listing Smarter.com returns isn’t a paid placement. I’ve said before that I really don’t like how Shopping.com returns only the top 4 bidders for many searches (example) and to get the complete list, you have to click on a ‘Compare all store offers’ link. Great for driving revenue, terrible for the user experience. Now is Smarter.com the perfect user experience? Not necessarily, but the lowest priced offering from the highest rated merchant is one of the most popular listings on the shopping comparison engines, so it makes sense to pop that to the top of the page versus making your users search, sort, and then scan the page. And if this signals a larger move by Smarter to return more relevant results vs. trying to monetize as quickly as possible, I think consumers will welcome the change.
Thank you Smarter.com for starting to crawl…even if it is just a limited crawl. At some point USA Today and other average Joe & Jane publications, are going to write a stories that say Site A has 40 merchants selling product X while Site B has 137 merchants selling product X. While there are definitely other factors that make or break a user experience (the first which comes to mind for me is SKU association/Normalization), the average Joe & Jane are going to flock to the site with more choices. However, crawling and then SKU associating is difficult. No shopping comparison engine would claim they’ve figured out the secret sauce, and I’ve heard that some companies use manual labor in foreign countries to tag and categorize product listings as it can’t be done through technology. I personally think we’ll see a blending between structured (data feed driven) and unstructured (crawled) results and the sites not throwing PhDs at the crawling problem are going to be left behind.
The clustering Smarter is working on isn’t revolutionary, but it’s a pretty significant leap forward for the company. And if it’s true that other shopping comparison engines do this type of work through cheap manual labor in other countries, then it’s a big deal. Here’s an old search result for women’s sunglasses (check out the filtering options on the left side of the screen):
Now take a look at the current search results. As opposed to just Brand, Store, and Price Range, you can now filter by Frame Color, Frame Material, Lens Color, Lens Material, Lens Shape, Sunglasses Shape, and Sunglasses Type. This is an incredible improvement that makes searching for sunglasses online pretty much like searching for sunglasses at your local Sunglass Hut.
Ok, all isn’t perfect at Smarter.com. The site seems to be slow. I can’t seem to find many examples of crawled listings. The clustering is only working for a limited number of sub-categories. But these issues will get worked out. The bigger question is whether Smarter can really make any headway against Shopzilla and Shopping.com who are dominating the space. Or even against NexTag, PriceGrabber, Yahoo! Shopping, and Froogle. I don’t have an answer for you, but I think Smarter is moving in the right direction.
Smarter.com Getting Smarter – July 5, 2006
Smarter.com Data Feed Optimization Tips – December 9, 2005
Smarter.com Moves into Japan and China – November 14, 2005
Holiday Shopping at Smarter.com – November 7, 2005
China, Search, and e-Commerce – The Smarter Solution – August 8, 2005