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By Alex Salkever It was probably only a matter of time. Google, the planet's most popular search engine, has now turned its attention to the most prevalent activity on the Internet (aside from viewing porn) -- shopping. Web buyers ponied up $11 billion in the third quarter of 2002, according to the U.S. Commerce Dept. Google wants to help them find what they're looking for and find it cheaper. So it has tweaked its search engine to scan for e-commerce sites. Merchants can also send in their Web addresses to ensure that Google trawls their sites, and individuals can submit their own favorites.
Google digests and formats this information into a new search service dubbed, naturally, Froogle. To keep its results clean, Google doesn't sell placements in the main Froogle search results. While advertisers can buy links on the right-hand section of the page, they're clearly marked as sponsored. And you can't buy anything directly from Froogle. Shoppers need to click on the links to go to the e-commerce pages listed.
TEST-DRIVE DISAPPOINTMENT. This service is, as Google strenuously notes, still in beta testing and isn't a final product. But as a Google fanatic -- my wife claims I sometimes murmur Google in my sleep -- I was too excited to wait for the final release. Alas, after some unscientific research and lots of experimenting with the beta version, I have to report that Froogle definitely isn't the best way to find bargains on the Net.
For my Froogle test drive, I knew what I was planning to buy -- an Olympus DS 330 digital voice recorder. My method: I would search on Froogle by category, by brand name, and, finally, by the exact product name and number. I would then compare this shopping experience to other shopping search engines, such as NexTag.com and PriceGrabber.com. While hunting for a single item makes for a totally unscientific survey, I would at least find out the lay of the land. And as a tech product, I figured a digital voice recorder should sit squarely in Google's traditional geek-information sweet spot.
To start, I typed "digital voice recorder" into the Froogle search box. The 10 results returned on the first page offered several DVRs but only two from major brand-name electronics manufacturers, Panasonic and Olympus, whereas five listings for relatively obscure DVR makers turned up. No Sony, which was a big surprise. Even more disappointing, the 10 results also included one for a Fuji camera and two for memory sticks. Ironically, only the listings for memory sticks came from major electronics stores, Dell and J&R Music World.
NO BARGAINS. And none of the stores appeared to have big selections of DVRs. In comparison, sponsored links led to more useful sites. A hyperlink to Dealtime.com, a comparison-shopping site, led me to listings for dozens of DVRs sold at top retailers such as Amazon.com, Office Depot, and Office Max. And many of the prices actually beat those offered in Froogle's main body of search results.
Now, I knew that I wanted an Olympus DVR. So I altered my Froogle search, typing in "'digital voice recorder' + Olympus". The results improved somewhat, with a handful of Olympus DVRs popping up. Still, three listings on the page weren't for DVRs. And none of the e-commerce sites were big names that I really trusted. All told, the search results were still sub-par.
To make it even easier for Froogle, I added the precise model number of the product I was looking for. Froogle returned only a single listing at Digital Foto Listing Club for $113. This seemed odd because dozens of online retailers sell the DS 330, and Froogle should have found their prices.
BLOWN AWAY. I then turned to NexTag. This shopping search engine has a clean, Google-like interface. But the results it returns blow Froogle away. I typed in "digital voice recorders," and up popped a matrix with dozens of DVR models. Printed under each model was a list of online sites selling the product and their prices. Another button on the grid allowed you to compare prices on any one product at 10 top merchants, a very handy feature that Froogle lacked.
The far-left column of NexTag's matrix held clickable reviews compiled from feedback contributed by the site's users, a nice feature that gives you an idea of the reliability of the retailer taking your credit card -- another service Froogle didn't offer. And by the way, I didn't even need to go through the next two steps in my search, typing in the product name and then the model number. NexTag brought up results immediately that included the DVR I sought and prices from 10 online merchants.
If you enter your Zip code, NexTag will also calculate how much additional you would pay in taxes and shipping, and it gives an out-of-pocket cost, still another helpful feature missing from Froogle.
TOO STINGY. Add it all up, and NexTag gave me a far better information for my online shopping search. I found the same to be true at PriceGrabber.com (although it didn't recognize my search for digital voice recorders, it did lead me to the voice category where I found DVR listings).
Undoubtedly Google will improve Froogle -- it's only in beta, after all. For now, though, I think Froogle is far too stingy with information. Until the mad scientists at Google come up with more useful features and make their results more relevant, online buyers may want to start their searches elsewhere. Salkever is Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online