Shopping Searches on Google and Yahoo

(Taking a break from the Defining Relevancy series. I will return to that again later.)

Google and Yahoo have relevant results for many non-commercial searches, but I am often disappointed by their results for shopping queries. Google and Yahoo have become every search engine optimizer and spammer’s target, and so they get “hacked” by spammers fairly often. They also get bombarded by the big shopping sites such as Amazon, eBay, Bizrate, etc. These companies depend on prominent search results on Google and Yahoo in order to survive, and so they target their efforts to doing just that. Oftentimes these sites are useful, but it troubles me that a small group of sites are dominating search results. Not only does it limit the immediate usefulness for users, but it also limits the opportunities of other merchants to sell online, and that will hurt us all in the long run.

I would like to look at some specific queries. To be sure that my queries are recognized as being commercial in nature, I have formulated them all to include the word“buy” in them.

buy printers
The first result is from ZDNet, the second is from CNET. Remember when CNET bought ZDNet? The two sites are indeed different, but take a look at the display titles:
Buy printers – Best printers – Compare printer prices – ZDNet …
Buy printers – Best printers – Compare printer prices – CNET …
Looks fishy to me. and Shop Genie show up prominently as well.

buy ipod
Where is the official Apple store? Nowhere. And look, there is and Shop Genie again. Hi guys!

buy sports goggles
A scan through the results shows some of the usual suspects; My Simon, Dealtime, and Amazon in this case.

buy soccer ball
The first four listings in order are Bizrate, Bizrate (again), Epinions, and Amazon.

And check out this query:
buy some time before I die (intended to be somewhat nonsensical).
Amazon gets the first two spots and there’s Epinions at the bottom of the list.

What is my point with all of this? My point is to demonstrate that there are certain sites which consistently show up in Google results if the query includes “buy” or is otherwise shopping related. Is this bad? I do think it is problematic. Amazon, although a great shopping site, may not always be the best place to buy everything. But they do have a monopoly of sorts on Google for shopping searches.

Let’s see how Yahoo is doing with these same shopping queries.

buy printers, Bizrate, and ZDNet are there. But so are the homepages for Dell and HP. That sounds good at first, but since I am being nitpicky, why are the homepages returned and not Dell and HP’s printer pages?

buy ipod
Amazon has positions 3,4, 9 and 10. Not good. Why four positions instead of just one or two? Official Apple sites show up in positions 2, 5, 6 and 7; though again, do I need four Apple sites in my top ten? sneaks in to number 8. Is this better than Google? Yes and no. It is much better in that the official Ipod site is included, but it is worse in that less diversity of results are returned.

buy sports goggles
Again, we see certain suspects showing up. Overstock,,, and eBay. However, some other sites have managed to sneak in as well, which is good.

buy soccer ball
The first result is from Sounds promising, but it actually goes to the homepage and not the soccer ball page. Number 2 is a poster from The rest of the results are not so good, there is a soccer ball rug, a soccer ball piñata, and a soccer memorabilia store.

buy some time before I die
Amazon and eBay are there sure enough, but there are also some other sites to provide diversity.

Froogle and Yahoo Shopping
Overall, my shopping experience has been passable, but not great. Of course I am not the first to point these things out, and I suppose the two companies realized this long ago which was why they both launched shopping tools. Google has Froogle, which for some reason is still in Beta even though it launched in 2003 and is even one of the tabs on Google’s front door. Yahoo has Yahoo Shopping.

Looking at some examples from above, the results are much better on both engines.
buy ipod
eBay is still there, but the other results come from a variety of merchants. Not only that, but the interface is much more advanced, allowing users to do things like sorting by price and by store. There are also thumbnails to preview the products.

buy soccer ball and are prominent again, plus Froogle’s own comparison option. Overall, good results.

Yahoo Shopping:
buy ipod is in there, but also a whole variety of other merchants. And the interface is sweet. There are previews and some really good sorting options, such as specifying desired hard-drive size.

buy soccer ball front and center in position 1, but the remaining listings are diverse, which is good. But, most of the listings are selling soccer ball related things like video games, shin guards, soccer ball charms, etc. That is very bad. If I wanted those things I would search for those things. Trust me.

For shopping queries it is not worth doing general web searches on Google and Yahoo. Although many users optimistically think they should be able to do shopping searches using general web search, the reality is otherwise.

Google recognizes and admits this and has Froogle results promoted above its general web results. But Yahoo does not do that. I think for general web searches they should promote their shopping results for certain queries, since the user experience is better on Yahoo Shopping. The trick there is to base it on queries, so that only a percentage of searches trigger Froogle and Yahoo Shopping suggestions. I do not want to see Froogle or Yahoo Shopping recommendations for non-commercial queries. Both engines have probably generated heuristic lists of commercial queries over time; these lists could be used for this purpose. Maybe Google is already doing so because soccer promotes Google News instead of Froogle, whereas soccer ball correctly recommends Froogle results.

Both engines could improve their targeting for shopping queries. Sometimes the results are too broad and other times too specific. As a user I can be trusted to search for what I want to buy. If I want a soccer piñata I will search for that. So instead of doing broad matches to my query, the product results should be specific and targeted.

And lastly, it would benefit users if there were more diversification of results. Whether it’s done through source clustering or another method, providing a broader range of merchants will improve my online shopping experience.

For shopping searches, users should use Froogle and Yahoo Shopping. And the engines should promote those options for relevant searches that are conducted using their regular web search interfaces.

About Chris

I'm Chris and I've worked in the search engine industry since the late '90s.

View all posts by Chris →