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Search engines that scour for the Web’s ‘best deals’ don’t deliver what you might think. Here we expose the innards of some of top bots — including merchants who pay for high placement.

 

More people are spending time and money online — and they’re using shopping bots to save on both. But what few realize is that the results they see often aren’t the best deals available.

Shopping bots are essentially search engines for gathering prices for products from a variety of vendors. Indeed, searching for stuff to buy is a big part of what people do online, at least in the United States. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Commerce noted that 36% of Americans use the Net to search for products — up by about 10% from the year before.

 

With worldwide inventories at their fingertips, resourceful shoppers have found a friend in these comparative shopping sites. And why not? They promise to scour the Net for the best deals so you don’t have to, but showing you the best price isn’t necessarily the top priority for some of them.

 

The nitty gritty BizRate.com is one such site. Founded in 1996 as a consumer research business, BizRate isn’t interested in simply finding the cheapest prices. It sees its mission as having as much to do with providing quality assurance as it does with finding the best deals.

 

“The consumer wants choice. That’s why they go to a comparative shopping site,” says CEO Chuck Davis. “But the consumer also wants confidence.”

 

To that end, users will find a “Store Rating” column in the BizRate search results. These ratings are based on the consumer surveys that comprised Bizrate’s original business model. (One merchant, PhotoAlley.com, had been rated by more than 10,000 consumers since 2000, for example.) The comparative shopping side of the equation was only added in 2000. But last year, it surpassed BizRate’s research to become its dominant source of revenue, Davis says.

 

With all this research, you might be excused for thinking that the search results on BizRate.com are sorted by store rating or best prices. In actuality, results are primarily sorted by which merchants have paid for the honor of appearing at the top of the list.

“Results are sorted by how much a merchant wants to get in front of a consumer,” Davis says. “But at BizRate, we give tools to the consumers to sort however they want to see the results. They can sort by price, they can see the merchants alphabetically. . . . It’s too presumptuous for us to say any one of them is more important.”

 

Davis also points out that BizRate’s results do not exclude merchants that aren’t willing to pay for placement. He estimates that more than half of the 2,000 retailers they search pay Bizrate nothing at all, though it’s difficult to differentiate these from the non-paying vendors in a results list sorted by price, for example.

 

Most other shopping bots similarly sell the prime real estate at the top of their results pages. DealTime, MySimon and Clickthebutton.com, which followed BizRate at the top of Jupiter’s traffic numbers for December, all use pay-for-placement models. And like BizRate, they make it rather difficult to tell whether someone is paying to be there. Clues to this practice are usually hidden in the “merchant” sections of the sites, not somewhere the average consumer might think to look.

 

Even after clicking around MySimon results, I was hard-pressed to spot the paying advertisers, but I learned from its merchant section that 60% of the click-throughs are received by its 200-plus ‘bold merchant partners.’ (One hint: those fancy logos are included in at least one partner package. DealTime similarly described pay-for-placement opportunities in its merchant section. (I never could get through to Clickthebutton.com.)

 

A lone ranger?
Indeed, PriceScan is the only bot in the Top 5, and possibly the only one period, that doesn’t sell its results to the highest bidder. Co-founders Jeff Trester and David Cost are somewhat baffled by this.

 

“If you’re only showing people that pay you to be there, how can you show who has the best deals?” Cost wondered. “If you really want to have a free market and market transparency, you have to show everyone. Our thought is, this is the best way to do this.”

 

The default display for PriceScan’s “lowest price” results (the blue links at the top of the page) puts the bet prices at the top of the list, regardless of merchant relationships.

“Consumers need to know who has the best price,” Trester says. “I think serious buyers will and do care about that.”

 

Search for a specific retailer in PriceScan’s “Find a store” section (the red links at the bottom of the home page), however, and all bets are off. Those retailers have paid to be listed here, though there are no promises regarding their pricing.

Despite these caveats, bots remain one of the best ways to aggregate offers from around the Web and find sites you may not have otherwise discovered. But it may be worthwhile to use more than one site to surface as many retailers as possible.

 

Top shopping bots
We put some of the most popular bots to the test with a search for one of the latest digital camera crazes: The Canon PowerShot G2. I was interested in number and variety of results, reliability of the results (do the prices hold true once you’ve clicked through to the actual merchant site?) and variety of bot features, such as merchant ratings, shipping costs and ease of use.

 

BizRate.com
BizRate’s unique draw continues to be its proprietary merchant ratings based on real consumer feedback. My search for the Canon PowerShot G2 turned up a list of 21 sites with prices ranging from a low of $679 to a high of $899. I enjoyed being able to sort by all the columns and the “as of” date next to the price made me feel that the results would still be valid when I clicked through to the merchants. Spot-checks of the top few deals proved this to be true. Bizrate also made it easy to make side-by-side comparisons with other similar cameras. Still, the tendency to stick paying merchants at the top had me clicking to re-sort by price, something I think I’d do on every search.

 

PriceScan.com
With its laser-beam focus on the lowest prices, PriceScan begs to be used. PriceScan includes offline retailers in its searches, so I was surprised that my search for the PowerShot G2 turned up only four results — albeit with a respectable low of $649 — until I saw that I’d been directed to non-U.S. distributors. I found another 20-odd offers by searching the U.S. distributors, but the closest any of them came to the $649 price was $747. Shipping costs were listed for more than a third of the offers, though not included in the final cost. Some of the pricing information also differed from the merchant’s site once I clicked through — in some cases the camera cost more, in others less than what was listed on PriceScan. Also, I was surprised to find that I missed being able to sort results by anything other than price.

 

DealTime
When we last tried to find the best ways to hunt down deals, DealTime came up a winner. It shined again this year as it turned up great deals and enough merchant information to evaluate whether the deal was worth doing business with a lesser-known retailer. Its top deal for the camera — $649 — came from the same retailer that topped PriceScan’s results, though I had to re-sort by price to find this. The consumer reviews of the merchant, however, made me seriously consider paying the $100 or so extra to go with the next best price from a retailer with better consumer feedback — information I would have lacked had I searched PriceScan only. Pricing information proved reliable based on spot-checks of the top deals. Shipping costs were noted for about 10% of the 41 results.

 

MySimon
MySimon turned up 55 offers, but again, you have the initial, obligatory clicks to re-sort results by best price. Also, the prices in the results often differed from those on the merchant sites. Its second-best result ($729 from a merchant called “Genesis Camera”) was off by $170. Talk about clicker shock. The real cost of $899 would have dropped this offer nearly to the bottom of the list before you start getting into upgrade kits. Though scarce on extra doodads like dates that the prices were culled or shipping costs, MySimon has paired with Gomez.com in order to rate its merchants.

 

PriceGrabber
PriceGrabber is a sworn favorite of one of my co-workers, and it’s not hard to see why. The best deal is listed prominently at the top of the page, along with product reviews and a large picture. The remaining results, however, required re-sorting to display them in order of best to worst prices, which ranged from $749 to $899. Prices proved mostly reliable (the top three results were supported by the merchant sites, but I didn’t have to dig too much deeper to find some discrepancies.)

 

The number of offers came in at just under 40, and you can enter your ZIP code to have estimated shipping costs added in (yielding the much-heralded, or at least much-hyped, “Bottom Line” price.) Though the shipping costs are merely estimates, it’s informative to be able to sort by both listed and Bottom Line prices, though they were one and the same in my case. In addition to retailer reviews by consumers, the site provides a good deal of information on each merchant’s payment methods, shipping options and return policies. Its Product Tracker also eliminates a lot of effort by allowing you to name a price and receive e-mail alerts when a suitable deal is found.

 

Overall, most of these bots turned up useful, even comparable, leads, though the pricing data at BizRate and DealTime seemed most reliable. And despite the fact that pay-for-placement is rampant, it amounts to little more than some annoying extra clicks for the consumer in the know. The real danger is in not knowing you should do so.

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