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Shopping Bots

SHOPPING BOTS

Shopping bots are price comparison sites on the World Wide Web that automatically search the inventory of several different online merchants to find the lowest prices for consumers. Typically, these sites rank products by price and allow shoppers to link directly to an online merchant's site to actually make a purchase. Many shopping bots also include links to product reviews from evaluation sites like Gomez.com and Bizrate.com.

One of the most popular shopping bots, mySimon.com, culls the offerings of more than 2,000 etailers using its Virtual Learning Agent software, for which a patent is pending. Users can either search for a specific product by keyword or browse several product categories including apparel, books, consumer electronics, movies, and wireless products. Searches result in a listing of products that can be sorted by various criteria including price, merchant ratings, and manufacturers. To change the way information is sorted, shoppers can simply click on a different category heading. Shoppers who reach a decision about which item they wish to purchase begin the transaction by clicking the "buy" button located beside each product. They then are routed to the Web site selling the item, where they can complete their purchase. mySimon.com offers its shopping bot service free to users. The site makes money via banner bar advertising. For a fee, merchants wishing to increase their visibility on the mySimon.com site can join the company's Building OnLine Demand (BOLD) program. The icons of BOLD members appear larger in the search results offerings than the icons for merchants who are not members.

Another leading shopping bot, PriceSCAN offers a wider selection of products than mySimon.com because it includes offers from merchants without Web sites. The site's databases are changed frequently as new informationpulled from catalogs, print advertisements, and faxes from the merchants them-selvesis added daily. The bot relies solely on banner bar advertising as a source of revenue.

Unlike mySimon.com and PriceSCAN, some shopping bots require payment from each merchant they list. This practice does not always work to the benefit of the consumer, as those online merchants offering the best deals may not have paid for a listing on a certain bot. According to the November 2000 issue of Searcher, "the reality is that most shopping bots make money by collecting listing fees from the merchants who sell through them. Merchants who pay more get higher rankings from the bots, and sometimes they can shut out competitors altogether. For example, the entire category of 'Books' on the Lycos shopping site searches only the Barnes and Noble site with absolutely no way to compare prices." Similarly, both Excite Shopping and DealTime only search the inventories of merchants who pay for a listing, limiting the options offered to shoppers using the sites. The Yahoo! shopping bot limits its searches to leading online merchants, appealing to online shoppers who prefer to use only the most recognized electronic merchants.

Some shopping bots specialize in certain types of merchandise. For example, IQShopping searches the inventories of online home electronics and video game vendors, as well as traditional brick and mortar retailers selling the same wares. BookFinder.com searches Amazon, Antiqbook, Barnes and Noble, Bibliofind, and other online book retailersa combined database of roughly 15 million booksto find the cheapest book prices for shoppers. CNET's shopping bot focuses on computers and other types of consumer electronics, including wireless devices. One of the earliest shopping bots, Price Watch has allowed shoppers to search for computers and computer parts since 1995. Its Price Watch Info-Link system posts the prices offered by online retailers in real time.

Despite the obvious benefits of using a shopping bot to compare prices on a wide range of products, even the top shopping bots found themselves fighting to stay afloat in 2000 and 2001. Many saw their sales plummet as their main revenue source, banner bar advertisements, became something many struggling dotcom startups could no longer afford. Also, when the economy worsened many traditional firms tightened their marketing budgets, eliminating online advertising dollars. Other bots suffered when customers who used their service to find a low price ended up being dissatisfied with the customer service offered by the merchant selling the product. Although typical shopping bots have no control over customers' shopping experiences once they launch an online purchasing transaction, many customers associate the bot with the negative experience.

According to a July 2001 article in E-Commerce Times, bots will remain a part of the e-commerce landscape only if they make several changes, such as increasing consumer awareness via advertising, increasing their level of user friendliness by cleaning up page design and clarifying search procedures, and offering more information on the return policies of merchants.

FURTHER READING:

Greenberg, Paul A. "The Bottom Line on Online Shopping Bots." E-Commerce Times. July 13, 2001. Available from www.ecommercetimes.com.

McDermott, Irene E. "Shopping Bots: Santa's Electronic Elves." Searcher. November, 2000.

Pack, Thomas. "Intelligent Shopping Agents." Link-Up. March, 2001.

Turner, Rob. "Shopping on the Internet: Eight Rules You Can't Afford to Ignore." Money. December 1, 1999.

SEE ALSO: Bizrate.com; Intelligent Agents; mySimon.com; Spiders

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