Brick-and-mortar retailers spiff up for the holiday season. So it’s not at all surprising that Become.com should also put on a new face in time for Christmas shoppers.
But there’s more going on at Mountain View-based Become than just a new façade. The Web site, which launched last year offering users a centralized search engine for product research, has added price comparisons and a number of new features it hopes will make Become a go-to site for shoppers this year.
Become.com has made up its mind to differentiate itself from other shopping engines on the basis of product, category and shopping research, in a format that makes it easier for Web searchers to filter out the kind of information they want from the thousands of results that a search for “digital cameras”, say, can bring up on a Google search.
Users start with a query box that asks, “What are you shopping for?” and offers them two types of results: research and shopping. If they’re in the research phase of their search, they can sort through the 4 billion purchasing-related Web pages Become.com has in its index—all spidered and tagged by its own technology and proprietary algorithms.
Searchers who are just starting their research can use a feature called SearchZoom to call up only buying guides for a product category; or, if they’re a bit further along in their purchase decision, they may want to look at product reviews for a handful of models they’re considering, or listen in at discussion forums about specific brands. Become.com’s search platform can find and index that buying-related content and even sort a single page into a buying guide and product reviews.
As a result, people move faster to the research content they want, says Become.com founder and CEO Michael Yang, one of the brains behind early Web shopping site MySimon. “If you’re looking for an iPod Nano, we don’t serve up the Wikipedia page on iPods,” he says. “We know you want shopping research, and we give that to you.”
Yang steps back to explain the strategy behind changing Become’s home page transformation from a very stripped-down format reminiscent of a Google search to one that invites more engagement, with tabs and visuals. “We wanted to make the site much more shopping-centric,” he says. Before, we didn’t have any photos of any kind. But shopping is a combination of information research and visual research, looking at photos and colors.”
The shopping search content comes through direct feeds from manufacturers and vendors. Become offers data on 20 million products from 5,000 merchants, Yang says, and is always looking for more.
Searchers can sort their product searches by price, brand, size, style and even color. In fact, a new color search function launched just last week also uses Ajax to grab and hold customers’ attention. Searchers looking for a blue sweater, for example, click the blue box on a simple color bar; they’re instantly given a color palette of more than 1000 shades of blue. They can click on the exact hue they’re looking for; the become algorithm goes out and seeks that as the dominant color in the sweater category and returns the results. No more having to figure out exactly what color “heather” or “oyster” translates to in the visible spectrum.
It sounds fluffy, but in fact, you can’t discount the “wow” factor in presenting the shopping experience to users. And Yang points out that it actually winds up simplifying the process for them and hopefully makes it more satisfying too, with fewer products returned for being the wrong shade of blue.
Shopping results pages can serve up 20 thumbnails at a time, each with a photo, price, short description and a “See It” link to the merchant’s specific product page. When they mouse over the thumbnails, searchers get a pop-up with a longer description, the same merchant link, and links that let them either click to product research or add the item to a favorites list.
Users can also enter their ZIP code to get locations for and maps to the stores near them that sell a specific product, if they would prefer to shop online but buy in person. Entering ZIPs will also give users a rough idea of the tax and shipping charges for their purchase, which should help cut down on shopping cart abandonment at the merchant sites.
Right now Become doesn’t take any fees for accepting product feeds from merchants. It sells a few sponsored links on product results pages, but makes most of its revenue from per-click charges when users click through a product listing to the merchant sites.
For that reason, Yang says Become isn’t worried by the prospect of sending users to other places on the Web; far from it. “As long as we’re delivering compelling information, we believe people will come back and will share the site with others,” he says. “As long as a portion of our users click through to the merchants or sponsors, we’re fine.”
The Become.com home page also links to a shopping blog the company’s been running for a few months now called “Pocket Change”. Edited by communications director Mimi Sells with help from other shopping-obsessed staffers, the blog is meant to promote other great shopping and product sites around the Web, without any concern for financial return to Become.com.
“We’re not just hawking for our site,” Sells says. “We want to send people to other cool sites. We want to be the first stop you go to for what’s cool in shopping, the best destinations, the best prices. That’s a philosophy that we apply across the spectrum: that it’s not all about us, it’s about the consumer.”
Yang and company are hoping that that user focus and the new tools will help Become.com rise above all the search competitors that will be targeting online shoppers this quarter.
If a study they commissioned from market research firm Cascade Strategies is accurate, Become.com stands a strong chance against at least one major search rival: Google. The online survey, conducted in June and published last month, asked respondents to compare and rate the experience of shopping for a DVD player and a digital camera on both Google’s general search engine and Become.com. They were then asked to choose a third item from a list of 100 products and perform the same side-by-side comparison.
The overall results was that more than 55% of the shoppers tested found they like the Become.com experience better, particularly for its visibility of product choices, and the ability to consolidate needed information in one place. Comments included lots of superlatives and promises to recommend the engine to friends; Google, on the other hand, got reviews that stressed its familiarity: “I’m used to it.”
Yang is hoping that more people can be enticed to step out of their search rut this holiday season and give Become.com a try.