There have been a few unsuccessful efforts at allowing the search engine to complete the transaction, eliminating a visit to the retail site at all. Those efforts will be tried again and Google and others will likely succeed eventually, a few years down the road. But in the meantime, search engines are trying to evolve way beyond portals. To do that, they must provide a lot more information so that consumers can make more choices before they leave to make their purchases.
Under the old model, a retailer would have to make nice with the search engine, but that was typically limited to making their data highly accessible and in a search-engine-friendly format. Today, the choices that some search engines make as to what data to display and where to get that data could have a substantial impact on which retailer gets that sale.
As the time the consumer spends on that search engine grows, so does that engine's purchase influence.
One good example of this trend today is thefind.com. (Hmmmm. Maybe the PCI Council should try and buy www.fine.com? Just a thought.) It looks initially like a typical shopping site, but it goes much deeper. A consumer might start a search generically, seeking perhaps sandals. The response shows a wide range of brands of sandals and the site recommends one retailer for each. That choice alone could have a sharp impact.
If the consumer selects that particular sandal make and model, an option then appears to display all known retailers selling that product. The site also tries to provide E-mail and phone contact details for each site, information that some sites—including Wal-Mart and Amazon—like to hide.
The site is also trying to include Web forms, chat links, security certifications, payment options, shipping, return and exchange policies, store locations, hours and links to social site areas dedicated to those retailers and/or those products.
The site also has a localization engine, but let's say that it needs a little work. It's supposed to use the IP address to guess at a location, but it missed mine by about 3,000 miles. I then changed it to show an area in New Jersey. It displayed a series of error icons. When I tried again a few hours later, it placed New Jersey in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, right outside Brazil. (Yeah, I heard you in the back say, "That's exactly where New Jersey should be." I'll make the wisecracks around here, ok?)
But local search notwithstanding, thefind.com, in short, seems to get it. This 30-person company that sees almost 13 million customers a month, according to the site's Marketing VP, Larisa Hall, is not likely to be alone. The days of search engines as passive portals is gone and that means that retailers must interact with search in a very different way.
Even though the Web has always allowed smaller retailers to get closer to their multi-billion-dollar big brothers, these kinds of sites could give the smaller players even more of an equal environment. The advantage of a strong retail brand—which is still extremely valuable—is diluted every second the consumer is debating his/her choice on a seemingly neutral search engine site.