The Center for Media Research reports on recent numbers from the web statistics site Hitwise, which indicate that search engines are still the primary drivers of shopping traffic, but that social networking sites are catching up. Google of course is still the leader in online retail visits, at 14% of all shopping traffic. But Myspace accounts for 2.53% of all shopping traffic, which is higher than MSN search at 2.33% and not far from Yahoo at 4.69% at the end of August 2006.
The larger question is what are the factors that play into a consumer’s shopping decisions?
My gut tells that people are most influenced by the people around them. If I’m in the market for rollerblades, and my friends tell me that Brand X is the one they use and love, I’m unlikely to be swayed by a commercial or a website telling me that Brand Y is the bomb. So as a lot of our inner social circle is increasingly mediated by the web, it’s understandable that social networking sites would play a more prominent role in our buying decisions.
I’m a frequent user of Epinions.com for a lot of my larger shopping decisions, from travel choices to health clubs to electronic gadgets. If someone complains convincingly and knowledgeably about a particular product on epinions, I’m unlikely to purchase it. There’s a small, rankerous community of Amazon.com reviewers who engage in lengthy debates on the merits of that inflatable raft or this coffee maker. Low scored items rarely make it to my shopping cart.
For technical and complicated purchases, I like to use comparison charts and smart agents to help me choose the right digital camera or plane flight. I often have specific ideas about what I want in a gadget and how much I’m willing to spend. For travel, I know what airlines and routes I want to avoid, but am pretty open to odd flight times and offbeat connections. So a smart agent is perfect for these kinds of purchases.
In the virtual world of Second Life, there are various ways that people can shop for virtual goods on offer. The built-in search and classified system within Second Life works for some basic categories of goods, like "hair" or "car" but not so good for "men’s purple hair" or "astin martin." As I’ve blogged, there are several contendors for the best third-party commerce search engine.
Tonight at 10pm EST, there will be a discussion with Lex Lardner, creator of Jnana, an easy-to-use smart agent for vendors to help their customers choose from a range of goods to pick the one that’s right for them. Right now Lex has a working prototype of a smart agent that helps you pick out the perfect wok, including such factors as whether your range is gas or electric, whether you are cooking for one or a dozen, and how much you want to spend. Then it selects the best fit for you, showing a virtual 3D representation of the wok, and leads you to the Amazon webpage where you can purchase the real version. (Direct teleport to Jnana Island.)
Smart agents and search engines are great. But what’s missing is the social element.
I’d love to walk into a virtual mystery book store and have it tell me that not only was a new Walter Mosley novel in stock but also that three people on my friend’s list all had it on their wish lists. That might initiate a conversation with my buddies about what they had heard about it, if they had bought it, what other mysteries they recommended, etc. I might invite them to meet me in the store for an impromptu chat and we could all decide to buy the book together and check in next week on what we thought.
Until then, there’s always Epinion and my girlfriend…. I mean, my girlfriend and Epinion.