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AOL Launches New E-Commerce Site

America Online has taken the wraps off its new shopping site, inStore, which seeks to compete with Shopping.com, Google's Froogle.com, and other big-name e-commerce aggregators.

As with its rivals, AOL's new site collects and organizes product offerings from a variety of merchants, making those products available to browsers and searchers on the site.

The merchant listings are syndicated from BizRate.com, itself an impressive shopping destination site with more than 25 million products and 48,000 sellers. However, AOL is aiming to improve on BizRate's formula using new search technology that it created to help customers better locate the products they want.

Called Pinpoint, AOL's new search engine combines BizRate.com's product comparison engine with AOL-created filtering, customization and alerting capabilities. As a result, the AOL engine is designed to be superior to others in the space by trying to guess at shoppers' queries and direct them accordingly.

"Searchers want many choices ... except they want help in narrowing down those choices," said AOL spokesman Brian Hoyt. "They want help in comparing products, getting from 6,000 products down to six. BizRate is our key partner here at in-store ... and BizRate has a shopping technology that they own, and we're working with them to gain access to their pipe of merchants and services. On top of the BizRate pipe, AOL builds its own search engine functionality."

Hoyt described Pinpoint and its underlying technology, dubbed Rapport, as serving like an men's apparel shop of yesteryear, where knowledgeable merchants knew customers personally and directed them to products suited for them perfectly.

"The Pinpoint search functionality will start asking you questions," Hoyt said. "As soon as you start writing in the first three letters of you want, it will guess what you want, to help you save time and to show you what else is available."

It will ask, 'Do you care about this apparel brand? Do you care about how much you spend? Do you care about the quality of the item you buy?'" he added. "The search functionality that AOL built on top of that enables you to get down to that single item that you want to buy, or it helps you compare different items -- compare your shirt to your pants to your tie, to make sure they match."

Pinpoint can also recommend related items, Hoyt said.

"You may want a DVD player but you may not realize you need a cord with that, so it'll show you DVD accessories," he added.

In addition to the Rapport technology, inStore relies on other homegrown America Online services. Those include AOL Alerts, the online service's IM, wireless and e-mail notification system, which inStore shoppers can use to receive updates on prices changes for items in which they're interested.

inStore also incorporates AOL Instant Messaging more directly into the mix. Currently, its Shop Over IM feature provides a means for users to IM products to other users -- for instance, to solicit recommendations. Future versions will enable two users to actually shop together, in real time.

"AOL members specifically told us they want us to find a way for them to shop online with friends," Hoyt said. "People were skilled at going to a Web site and scraping the URL and sending it off to a friend and asking whether they liked this [product] ... Shop Over IM now is in it is initial stage -- you're sending links back and forth. We essentially want to turn it into a [system] where you're both kind of browsing the same Web pages together."

Hoyt said this would likely come in spring, during inStore's first major planned upgrade.

AOL Shopping Redux

inStore essentially represents a relaunch of AOL Shopping, featuring new technology and a revamped design with less clutter from competing advertising brands.

"We had about 300 [advertising partners] in our previous shopping experience, all on top of each other in the old AOL Shopping site," Hoyt said. With inStore, "we broke down the number of partners we work with, and we have, we consider, more real estate on a cleaner design."

Unlike BizRate.com and a number of other shopping sites, AOL's inStore also doesn't use paid placement to rank search returns.

"What our members told us is they basically want an unbiased search engine," Hoyt said. "The algorithm used is not pay-for-placement. Our pipe that we got from them is unbiased in what comes up first is typically most often purchased online. Basically speaking, it's a pretty nonbiased system."

The news is good for online merchants who are currently listed on BizRate. AOL and the shopping comparison firm have been working together since 1998, but the new effort means that merchants listing their products on BizRate are likely to see better exposure.

In addition to its Web location, inStore is accessible through the AOL service at AOL Keyword: inStore, and via AOL Search service, AOL.com Web site, the Netscape and CompuServe services and the CompuServe.com Web site.

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of ECommerce-Guide.com.

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