The Good: Fast searches, nice integration of local searches with Google Maps
The Bad: Limited filtering tools, sparse local product listings
The Bottom Line: Helpful, but needs more of a human touch
Google's (GOOG) shopping service, Froogle, turns three years old this month. That's nearly an eternity online. Yet all that time hasn't helped the site gain much ground in the hotly contested field of comparison-shopping sites. Froogle's market share trails well behind others, such as eBay's (EBAY) Shopping.com, E.W. Scripps' (SSP) Shopzilla, and Yahoo! (YHOO) Shopping.
Along with the nearly forgotten social-networking site Orkut, Froogle is one of the prime examples of Google failing to move much beyond its stronghold in paid search. It's not hard to see why.
Despite sporting Google's customary speed and some attractive features, such as the ability to find products in local stores, Froogle still can't match the leaders in what really matters: quickly researching and finding just the products you want. I took a closer look at Froogle as part of a series of reviews of Google features and tools (see BW Online, 11/30/05, "Google Tops the Charts").
Froogle's first challenge is one of the very things that made Google so popular: a starkly simple starting page. It sports little more than a search box, plus a random list of often-obscure products, from "voltmeter" to "mulch," that other users recently found through the site.
FOLLOW THE MENU.
Why that list is there, beyond showing the wide variety of stuff you can find through Froogle, escaped me -- especially when I clicked on "mulch" just for fun. One of the results was a photo of cypress bark mulch -- mine for $195! No thanks.
By contrast, Shopping.com, Shopzilla, and for that matter most online retail sites offer a useful list of categories on their home pages, often with sample products. That way, if you don't know precisely what you want, you can follow the menus quickly without being forced to type exactly the right combination of words at the outset.
Especially during the holidays, I like seeing other categories and products without having to think of them myself. It gives me ideas for gifts I wouldn't have considered otherwise. I'll take a little more clutter in exchange for serendipity.
Once you start digging deeper on particular products, you find that Froogle has some valuable shopping tools. I tested the site by doing searches on several sample products. First up: a search for "Sony digital camera."
At first glance, the results on Froogle look useful enough. There's a neatly laid-out list of Sony (SNE) cameras, with photos. There are also several columns of filters, so you can choose by price or a particular store, or see related searches to drill down more specifically. Click on one of the listings, and you get a product description and rating, followed by a multipage list of stores from which to buy the product, starting with the lowest-priced offering.
When I did the same search on Shopping.com, however, the advantages of the leading comparison-shopping site became immediately apparent. You can sort by a wider range of prices, megapixel resolution, flash function, and various other features, such as optical zoom. Unlike Froogle, Shopping.com makes you feel as if an actual human being experienced in shopping for digital cameras consciously set up the right filters.
When I clicked on some specific cameras, Shopping.com was helpful in sorting out the seemingly endless choices. While Froogle left me to decide for myself which factors were most important, Shopping had a single "Smart Buy" link on one listing that represented the lowest price from a trusted merchant. You also can compare several choices side by side on Shopping.com.
Next, I tried searching for "Ugg boots near Palo Alto" -- hoping to test out a new Froogle Local Shopping feature that finds nearby stores from which to buy a product.
Yet, despite my certainty that you could find Ugg boots at the nearby Stanford Shopping Center, among many other places, Froogle turned up no results.
Perhaps local merchants didn't list their wares online or in the right way, or none provided product feeds to Froogle. To be fair, Shopping.com didn't turn up any useful results either -- no surprise, given that it doesn't appear to have a local feature.
A Froogle search for "pashmina shawl near San Francisco" turned up a much more relevant list of stores, almost all in the city, with product descriptions, addresses, and phone numbers under each store. Still some misses, though: Pashmina shawls may be soft, but one listing, Software Research, certainly doesn't sell apparel. (Do those Google guys think about anything but tech?)
Nonetheless, these local listings underscore a cool and unique feature of Froogle: The listings are accompanied by a Google Map with numbered pushpins showing where the stores are located, from which you can click on directions. This is useful for finding those products you need immediately.
Beyond that whizzy feature, Froogle managed to outdo the competition on some product searches. I searched for "Lego town set," for instance, hoping to find generic kits that my daughter could build into a wide variety of buildings.
On Shopping.com, I got a list of only nine products, not all of which were what I was looking for, and on Amazon.com (AMZN), I got no results at all. On Froogle, I got 371 results -- again, not all precisely what I wanted, but more relevant than those from Shopping.com.
WORK IN PROGRESS.
So, generally, it appears that if you're adept at searching on Google -- that is, by using the right keywords to zero in on what you're looking for -- you may do better on Froogle, too. That bodes well for the time when Google inevitably will attract more listings from more stores interested in getting the widest possible exposure to potential customers.
Most of Froogle's other capabilities aren't unique, but they're nonetheless a nice touch. I especially like My Shopping List, which lets you save product results for later viewing. You can also designate any of those products to appear on your Wish List, which you can e-mail to other people. A number of online retailers, such as Amazon, have wish lists, but they're limited to products on their own sites.
I've talked to many merchants who sell on eBay, Amazon, and their own Web sites, and who are doubtful about Froogle's utility. But it's too early to write it off. As the company says in the Froogle site's Frequently Asked Questions, "beta" means that "the Froogle you see today is likely to evolve and improve over time." When a little more human insight gets applied to Froogle's seemingly solid technical underpinnings, it's a good bet Google can fulfill that promise.