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Analyzing The Major Shopping Search Services

This week I’ll look at shopping search from the user’s perspective. We’ll be starting with the big three offerings from the major engines, Google’s Froogle, Yahoo Shopping and MSN Shopping. In the next Just Behave column I’ll be taking a test drive of some of the dedicated shopping search properties and see how they stack up against the offerings from the big three. I’ll also look at some of the fundamental interaction principles that we explored in the last two columns, including the consideration set and the area of greatest promise. How do the individual search properties use their top of page real estate, what features do they offer and how easy is it for the user to assemble their consideration set quickly without having to do a lot of filtering? Also, what does each engine offer in that critical top of page real estate that reinforces information scent based on the queries used?

Yahoo Shopping


Let’s look first at the area of greatest promise on Yahoo Shopping search results, defined by the orange triangle. Remember, this is the area the page of the user will first start their scanning and it’s where they’ll start to pick up information scent relative to their query. One expects to see some reinforcement of the query used in this space. Yahoo does indicate information scent by reinforcing the query with the cue that the user can refine results based on a number of filters. Yahoo continues to give the user options to narrow their query either by brand, product line, price or other factors. These filter options run down the left-hand side of the page (a).

Yahoo is also the only of one of the three major engines to provide alternative search options at the top of page (d). The way they present these, even though they appear at the top of the page, means that they would often be skipped over by the user. By putting them in the blue box that tends to be used to orient against, they would likely suffer to some degree from banner blindness.

For me, the most frustrating part on this search results page is that Yahoo does so much right but does one fundamental thing wrong, at least from the user experience side. And it goes back to the fundamental issue the Yahoo seems to be having with almost every interface they put together. Information scent relative to the user query, in this case, expecting to see digital cameras to compare, is relegated down the page in order for Yahoo to stick in sponsored results. In “c” we can see that Yahoo is showing four sponsored results, pushing what we expect to see, the thumbnails of the product alternatives together with the information and pricing, well down the page, so that only one option can be seen. Our natural desire to see a few options to consider above the fold is not fulfilled because of Yahoo’s desire to monetize the page. The balance is in favor of Yahoo’s advertising community, to the detriment of the user experience.

Finally, we see how a typical listing presents itself (e) on Yahoo Shopping. As I said before Yahoo, does almost everything right here. The pertinent information is well laid out and it’s easy to scan pricing information and Yahoo uses a star rating that would definitely catch people’s attention. At this point, users are very much still looking for independent review information and Yahoo highlights this with a five star rating and a link to the product reviews. It’s a very good match to what a user might be looking for as they’re trying to narrow their consideration set.

The things that Yahoo would have to be better? Just one really. Let the owner take back control of that critical top of page real estate and move your sponsored advertising elsewhere.

As far as overall design, Yahoo puts a fairly intuitive look together. It’s clean, it’s easy to navigate, the filter options are fairly well laid out and with one major annoyance of the amount of top real estate dedicated to the top sponsored ads, the user should find a relatively positive user experience on this shopping engine

MSN Shopping Search


MSN Shopping has opted to put some interesting twists on the interfaces seen on the two competitors. Some of these twists add to the user experience and some definitely detract from it. Let’s start, as the typical user would, in the area of greatest promise. Once again, Microsoft makes the faux pas of giving the prime real estate to their advertisers, not the users. Microsoft took the unusual step of showing a display ads in this real estate rather than a text based ad (d). Where one would expect to start reinforcing scent by seeing some indication of the query just used, Microsoft chooses to show a relevant display ad. The degree of relevancy I suspect would vary with the popularity of the search term. Also shown in the area of greatest promise is a breadcrumb trail that does go some way towards reinforcing relevancy but all in all, it’s rather poor usage of the area of greatest promise.

Another rather strange thing that Microsoft is done as been to fix the width of the shopping interface (f), locking it at a standard screen resolution of around 800 pixels. The layout is not elastic so no matter how wide you set your browser you still have a limited amount of screen real estate to use for your comparison shopping. I found this rather frustrating as well.

The layout of the filter options was a little strange as well. It’s sparsely spread out down the left-hand side of the page (a). This pushes the fact that there’s multiple filter options down below the fold so it may not be apparent to users at first glance. In this case, the primary filter options shown to most users would be the number of megapixels on a camera. To me it seemed that price would be the logical first choice for a filter option.

Microsoft does get a little more fancy than their competitors in the display options, indicated by “c”. You have your choice of a list, a grid or text. List is the default.

In another callout to their sponsoring partners, Microsoft has a featured stores section on the right hand side. From a user’s perspective I had some issues with this. I think at this point most consumers are still looking for objective comparisons of their alternatives. One would like to see reinforcement from the engine in question that they’re maintaining objectivity amongst all the sources that their pulling the product information from and leaving the consumer in control to decide which store they ultimately want to explore further. The “Featured Stores” presentation seems to indicate that Microsoft is playing favorites here and that you might not be getting in an objective presentation of results. I suspect it would impact the trust that the user might have with Microsoft as a reliable and objective source of shopping comparison information. Looking further in the column (e) we see that Microsoft adds features that might well be overlooked by most users as they’re out of a typical scan path. The ability to create your own list or your own guide and add information to it offers additional user value, but by placing this immediately above the featured stores section Microsoft is minimizing the opportunity for users to find this. The featured stores section looks very much like sponsored ads, which leads the user to completely discount this entire column and remove it from their scanning pattern.

To sum up, Microsoft could have done a much better job in laying the real estate out to be more useful for the user. Again, the actual product display result (b) has been pushed so far down the page that most standard screen resolutions would only show one result above the fold. We expect shopping engines to bring us a variety of alternatives to consider, so the fact that more than one result is shown should be reinforced by moving product results above the fold so that the user in the initial scan can see at least two options before scrolling down.

Google’s Froogle Shopping


Google’s entry into the shopping market has not been as successful as they probably hoped it would be. Froogle has lingered in beta ever since its inception. Perhaps this accounts for the lack of a refined interface that we typically find on other Google properties. It’s not that the interface is bad. It’s just that it doesn’t seem to have the rough edges worn down by extensive user testing that typifies Google’s approach to design. Case in point, the rather bulky filtering options (a) that occupy the entire area of greatest promise. I have to think there’s better page real estate to use for these filtering tools. The entire filtering process that’s presented by Google seems rather cumbersome.

Google has also not missed the opportunity to try to monetize the page with the sponsored links. In Google’s case, at least they’ve moved it from the top of page real estate to the right rail (f), which is probably a better balance than we’ve seen on either of the competitors.

Google also gives you a few options (b) as far as results presentation. You can chose as a list view or a great view and decide how you want the results sorted.

The actual product listings (e) are fairly common but there’s one potential area of confusion for the user. Google actually uses two different rating icons here. Directly below the product description there’s a product ranking with the typical five-star icons that we’ve become familiar with. Then over where the store link is there’s also a seller rating so one can determine users past experience dealing with this particular vendor. Both are labeled but I wonder if users might become confused between the two different presentations of rating scales. All in all, the listing does give a significant amount of information to the shopper at a quick glance.

Perhaps the most interesting variation from the competition that Google throws in the mix is the ability to geo-target search (b). And there does seem to be some intelligence built into this function. I believe the location that showed for me was the one I was using the last time I used Google maps. Obviously Google cookied this from the previous use and is assuming that if I was looking for a camera a good place to start might be the last place I looked up directions on Google’s map. It’s not that elegantly implemented but it is an interesting clue of where Google might be taking product search in terms of localization and personalization.

Next week

When it comes to shopping search, the three major properties have definitely not tied up the competitive landscape. In fact, this is one area where the independents still seem to be the tools of choice for many shoppers. So next time we’ll round up the top three and compare them head-to-head, also comparing them to the functionality offered by Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft.

Gord Hotchkiss is CEO of Enquiro, a search marketing firm that produces search engine user eye tracking studies and other research. The Just Behave column appears Fridays at Search Engine Land.