Yahoo Launches Precision Browsing

SAN FRANCISCO — Yahoo officially kicked off the holiday shopping season Thursday with the launch of a site that brings together content, product search and comparison tools.

The new Holiday Gift Center will include lists of the most popular products in various categories, free shipping offers and information on shipping. Featured products will be a mix of paid placements and editorial picks. At a briefing event here, Yahoo said it will promote the center internally to Yahoo users, through its e-mail newsletters and also do some online advertising.

Yahoo Shopping was also enhanced with new technology going live on Thursday. The improvements help users narrow their searches by clicking on a list of product attributes returned with results, a strategy that combines old-styled browsing with search. Yahoo calls this “precision browsing.”

Said Rob Solomon, Yahoo Shopping vice president, “It’s the nexus of shopping and browsing. We had the best browsing site, but we figured out you had to have both browsing and search.”

When search results are returned, they include a clickable list of attributes on the left side of the results page. Shoppers can thereby narrow the natural results by the things that matter to them. For shoes, those might be gender, shoe type and manufacturer. For a search for refrigerators, attributes might include manufacturer, freezer location and the availability of an icemaker. While the electronics and computer categories have offered this function for some time, Yahoo Shopping now has extended it to all products.

The need for searchers to narrow product searches by product attributes reflects the primacy of search as the way people find stuff on the Web, Solomon said. “We’re seeing a trend of people typing in what they’re looking for in query boxes rather than going to shopping sites.”

The problem with that, he said, is that searchers tend to type in extremely general queries, such as “shoes,” rather than “men’s Nike running shoes.” In response, they may get thousands of results.

While electronics manufacturers provide product attribute data, general merchandise manufacturers don’t, Solomon said, so Yahoo had to build its own machine learning technology. Human editors define the product attributes, then computers match queries to available attributes. For the first phase of precision browsing, products will have from three to ten attributes; eventually, Solomon said, they might be unlimited.

“The future of online shopping has to revolve around this notion of attribute refinement,” Solomon said. “There will be more merchants and more products coming online, and people won’t change their behavior, so we have to do it for them.”

In conjunction with the results refining technology, the Mountain View, Calif. search and content provider unveiled a new front page for Yahoo Search. It’s less cluttered, in response to user feedback.

Yahoo is looking for its best-ever holiday shopping season, having seen 40 percent growth year over year, growth Solomon attributes to comparison-shopping and search tools that make it easy for shoppers to find products at good prices.

JupiterResearch forecasts equal good cheer for the entire e-commerce sector. Jupiter, which is owned by the same corporation as, expects online retail holiday sales for the period of November and December 2004 to reach $21.6 billion, a 19 percent increase year-over-year. Double-digit increases in sales are primarily due to more people shopping online: 86 million U.S. residents are expected to make holiday purchases online this year compared to 73 million last year, an 18 percent increase.

Solomon said product comparison is one of the killer apps for e-commerce. “Over the last couple of years, it’s gotten incredibly powerful.” He said the major comparison shopping sites, including Yahoo Shopping, garner from 50 to 60 million unique visitors a month.

JupiterResearch analyst Patti Freeman Evans found that over half of online shoppers will use the Web to get gift ideas or to seek better prices. “Consumers use the Internet to get inspiration as well as to find good prices at the holidays,” she wrote in her Holiday 2004 Forecast for e-commerce.

However, the use of comparison engines doesn’t put as much price pressure on merchants as one might think, according to Solomon. Retailers with strong brands will compete on price to some extent, but rely on their brands to help them compete.

“They will compete head-to-head with the no-name guy in Brooklyn. They won’t be at the bottom on price, they’ll be somewhere in the middle. They compete on their brand equity,” Solomon said. On the other hand, while consumers may prefer to buy from known retailers, Solomon said, “You will buy from those no-names if the user reviews are really good.”

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