Technologizer

Sorry, Microsoft, I’m Not Buying Your Attack on Google Shopping — Here’s Why

Microsoft's campaign against Google Shopping leaves me cold -- and Bing Shopping isn't so impressive.

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Microsoft

Are you aware that Google’s shopping search engine, unlike the company’s other search offerings, doesn’t give you a list of results based purely on relevance — not how much third parties are willing to pay to get into the rankings? You would be if you’d perused Scroogled, a new site which discusses the topic in great detail and says, “We say that when you limit choices and rank them by payment, consumers get Scroogled. For an honest search result, try Bing.”

Scroogled would make that suggestion: It was created by Microsoft, and is part of the company’s off-and-on efforts to attract consumers to Bing by sniping at Google on ethical grounds. (Another recent example: Microsoft ran ads publicizing a $22.5 million penalty Google paid to the FTC after being found to have tracked Safari users without permission.)

I’m glad that Microsoft takes its search war with Google seriously. With Yahoo having outsourced its search index to Bing, Microsoft is the last major company left that competes with Google from the core search technology on up. Everybody benefits from the investment Microsoft makes in Bing — including Google users, who surely get a better search engine than they’d have if Google had no meaningful rival.

But this Scroogled campaign leaves me cold. With its giant photos of concerned consumers and “Warn your friends now” feature, it has an agitated, angry, unpleasant feel about it. I can’t quite tell whether Microsoft intends the alarmist tone to be taken seriously or not — it sits in the uncanny valley between a public service message and a parody of a public service message.

Besides, the sort of educated consumers whom the campaign is presumably aimed at are smart enough to understand that there’s nothing objective about it. It’s one search engine trying to make you feel hostile towards another search engine. It’s negative campaigning from a company with a gigantic vested interest.

And I’m not sure whether I buy the argument that what Google is doing is all that sneaky. For one thing, Google Shopping does explain that the placements are paid, if you click on the “Why these products?” link:

Scroogled

Of course, Bing also lets advertisers fork over money to go to the top of its listings — but only one advertiser per list of rankings, as far as I can tell, and it’s marked as a “Sponsored Offer.” Every listing below that is organic, not a paid placement.

[UPDATE: Over at Search Engine Land, Danny Sullivan explains that some merchants pay to be in Bing's results, too, making Microsoft's finger-pointing at Google even less compelling.]

Microsoft says that Bing Shopping’s results are “honest.” That would seem to suggest that it’s telling us that Google Shopping’s are not. But ultimately, what you want from any search engine is relevance. In the case of shopping search, you want it to help you find attractive prices at merchants that you might want to do business with.

So is Microsoft saying that Bing Shopping’s results are more relevant than Google Shopping’s paid-inclusion results?

As a very cursory experiment, I searched for Sony‘s excellent RX-100 camera at Google Shopping. It listed 34 online stores, including a bunch of big names, with base price, tax and shipping information. It helpfully listed customer ratings, which it pulled in from sites such as ResellerRatings.com: No site received less than 4 1/2 stars, though, so they don’t do much to help you figure out who’s reputable and who isn’t.

And Bing? When I searched for the complete name of the camera — “Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100″ — I got some cases, cables and other doodads, but not the camera itself. So I searched again for “Sony RX100″ and got a bunch of results. When I clicked on the first set, it showed me two merchants:

Bing results

O.K., the camera is available from Burnp.com — that’s B-u-r-n-p.com, not B-u-m-p.com — and Sophie Systems. Two sellers I’d never heard of until now. And Bing has no customer reviews or other means of gauging them.

Here’s Burnp.com’s page for the camera:

Burnp

The price of $389.99, with free shipping, is remarkably low. In fact, given that the camera is relatively new and lists for $649.99, it sounds impossibly low.

And actually, Burnp.com isn’t selling the camera for $389.99, or any price. I’m not sure if it’s selling anything. Its site looks like a store, but its Delivery Information page says:

We are currently experiencing some issues with payment through our website checkout. At this moment in time, we are only able to sell via Ebay. All terms & conditions along with delivery information & Privacy policy’s will be provided by Ebay if you wish to purchase there.

Sorry for any inconvienience.

I didn’t see any links on Brnp.com to specific products at eBay; just a link which takes you to eBay’s home page, plus various text ads. There doesn’t seem to be any way to buy anything at this site. Presumably, Burnp collects a fee if you click on any of its ad links, even if it never sells any products itself.

As for Sophie Systems, here’s how it describes itself on its About Us page:

About Us

Everything we do is based on making technology simple for you. This is our company’s sole mission and thus all our products and services derive from this.

What do we believe in?

1. Although we sell older technologies to help our customers meet their immediate needs, we believe in the cloud.

2. We believe that all software, storage, and all services will one day be in the cloud.

3. We believe that business small and large will no longer need complicated systems on location.

4. We believe that plug and play will finally be achieved in information technology.

Very stirring — but I’m not sure what it has to do with selling new digital cameras.

And it turns out that Sophie doesn’t sell the RX100: When you click on the Buy Now link, it sends you over to Best Buy’s site. It looks like it collects an affiliate fee if you do indeed purchase the camera from Best Buy.

Now, if I’d clicked on Bing Shopping’s second list of merchants for the RX-100, I’d have fared better: It lists such well-known options as Amazon, Crutchfield and Buy.com. But when I click on the See All 22 stores link to see all my options, it orders them by “Total price,” including tax and shipping. The top merchant is something called Ayurvedic Roast.

Ayurvedic Roast?

Ayurvedic Roast

Yes, Ayurvedic Roast.

That site’s listing says it has the camera for a tempting total price of $560.23. Except when you click through, the merchant calls itself Games & Toys Online. And it says that shipping will be $32.86, not the $2.95 indicated on Bing, so the total price is $590.14. Nothing about the site leaves me thinking that it’s the best place to buy a camera.

I could pick further at Bing’s results. I don’t understand, for instance, why Best Buy isn’t listed in either of the first two grids of results, but does have three seemingly identical listings further down on Bing Shopping’s page.

It’s obviously true that you can’t render an overall verdict on either Google Shopping or Bing Shopping based on one test. Still, I was startled by how poor Bing’s results were in this instance. Moreover, they may be worse than Google’s in part because they don’t involve paid inclusion: If Microsoft demanded money from merchants, it might have kept Brnp, Sophie and “Ayurvedic Roast” out of the results.

Meanwhile, Pricegrabber — a search engine which has long focused only on product shopping — did a better job than either Google or Bing in some respects: It presented me with one set of results, and while it put “featured sellers” (advertisers) up top, it also clearly marked the lowest price.

To repeat myself: I admire Microsoft’s scrappy willingness to compete with Google search, a business which Google dominates so utterly that almost everyone else has given up. And if a search engine’s results involve paid placements, consumers need to know. But Scroogled doesn’t elevate the conversation — and Bing Shopping doesn’t prove that shopping search is superior simply because it isn’t based on paid inclusion.