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May 21, 2008

How Microsoft's Cashback Search Could Deliver

By Y.M. Ousley

Hint: It's not about the money.

When Microsoft's cashback live search was announced at Search Engine Watch there were somewhat positive reactions focused on advertisers (TechCrunch), though most feedback (here, here, here and here among others) has been of people left largely unimpressed.

Last year I suggested that certain searches were still open to companies who could provide better user experiences in various verticals: a thought echoed on GigaOm earlier this year, with references to vertical search engines on track to earn $500 million-$1 billion.

When I first read about the new Live search, I thought "close, but no cigar." The doubts - low-quality traffic, not enough user interest to buy market share - have already been well stated, so I won't harp on them. While not off to a great start, Microsoft could very well turn this into a product that delivers with a few significant improvements.

1. Continue to Innovate
On its own, the cashback program won't be a serious threat to Google or Yahoo. What could give it legs, is a better search experience for each category combined with cashback.

Shopstyle, a shopping engine I find particularly easy to navigate, seems to use merchant feeds to ensure the results only include in-stock items, with available colors and sizes displayed before you click through.

Since Microsoft is starting small, this is the type of thing that could ease Danny's frustration, and get them off to a much better start with users still willing to kick the tires.

Start with:

  • Indexing technology that recognizes when an item is unavailable
  • Real-time pricing updates to minimize discrepancies
  • Supplemental results that show relevant non-cashback products if a cashback product is not available

Even Calacanis figured out the last one. While going for the money (high-volume, commerce driven), terms, it's still in your best interest to give users an option for the long tail. A non-cashback Live Search for Philips DVD3575H, the DVD player Danny grew frustrated searching for, turns up a very relevant link to Amazon along with a review of the product. I'm in France so the next results are for French sites, but if they can find the specific model being searched for and link it to retailers where it's available for purchase (with related CPC ads!), why on earth are they not using these to supplement the cashback results?

2. Differentiate
Remember Froogle? Let's pretend you do. Completely my opinion, but one of the reasons it never took off is because a shopping search is different from a general search.

When I was shopping for a new digital camera, price wasn't my only filter. I wanted a certain amount of megapixels, didn't want the primary color to be silver or black, and reviews so I could get a better idea of picture quality and ease of use. Cashback or not, I would never think to start that search at Google, Froogle, Live or on any general search engine.

Regardless of how much cash is thrown their way, most shoppers are just as unlikely to try finding the right keywords to do that type of search. Here's where Microsoft has an opportunity:

  • Give category specific filters - beyond price - to each vertical.

Shopping for an engagement ring requires different options than shopping for a swimsuit. If a man is set on proposing with a platinum ring with a round diamond, it's unlikely $50-100 cashback will convince him to go with a gold ring with a pear-shaped diamond. If I'm looking for a one-piece swimsuit, I wouldn't buy a bikini for 99% cash back.

 

If this is the product that is expected to take on Google, Microsoft would be smart to follow the people who are already doing just that (Indeed, SimplyHired, Kayak being some of the largest) and give users what Google can't: highly relevant, category specific results.

As it is, Live cashback search will likely end up in the "in theory..." internet archives of next to iWon and a few others. If Microsoft innovates for e-commerce search, gives compelling filters for its target categories and uses cashback to offer users a better price than they'd find otherwise, this could very well be the next big thing in search.

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