December 12, 2002 11:45 AM PST

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With holiday spending in full gear, Google is testing a new service that uses the company's search engine to help shoppers find products online.

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Dubbed Froogle, the new service lets people search by category or by simply typing a product description into the search window. The search results are provided using Google's spider technology, which scours merchant Web sites for relevant product data.

Google came up with the product search service in response to customer feedback, said spokeswoman Eileen Rodriguez.

"We've seen an interest from users to search for more commercial information," she said.

The service for now is a bare-bones affair. Unlike the pages on some portal sites, there's no central shopping cart or wallet, and the company has no special merchant stores. It does allow people to narrow their search by price.

"Froogle (provides) a lightning quick way to search the largest collection of stores and products on the Web. That means if the item you're looking to buy is online, Froogle will likely find it," the company said on its Web page.

This is certainly a good time to try to reach shoppers on the Web. Online sales were up as much as 22 percent in November from the same month last year, according to a new study. Also, e-commerce is moving from its erratic infancy into a more stable maturity, with a few key survivors now defining the online shopping experience.

Many shoppers may already be looking to Google for help. Search engines account for about 14 percent of all referrals to shopping sites, according to market researcher WebSideStory.

As recently as January, Yahoo accounted for about half of those referrals, but Google has been coming on strong, said Geoff Johnston, vice president of WebSideStory's StatMarket group.

Over the last 30 days, Yahoo was responsible for 28 percent of search engine referrals to shopping sites, while Google accounted for 27 percent, according to WebSideStory.

Placement in Froogle's listings is free for merchants, who can contact the company to set up a special data feed to ensure their site gets included.

Google has run a catalog search service, also free to merchants, since December 2001. That service, still in the beta phase, now scans about 700 catalogs, letting people browse for products and offering links to catalog Web sites.

And while both the catalog and shopping service are free to merchants, the company notes that stores can take advantage of the search service by buying advertising linked to search questions. That's similar to what happens with Google's standard search. The company doesn't sell placement in its search database, but it does sell space on results pages tied to keywords used in the search bar.

Google's ultimate plans are unclear, but it's clear the company is hoping to become more than a search site. Google, which already dominates the consumer search market, offers everything from corporate search tools to a news page.

The Froogle service may end up competing with price comparison engines like BizRate, DealTime, and MySimon, owned by CNET Networks, publisher of News.com. Several merchants have agreed to send Google the data feeds they're currently sending to the price comparison sites, said Craig Nevill-Manning, senior research scientist at Google.

Google has been working on the Froogle site for a few months, and plans to add new features, he said.

"We have a list as long as my arm of features we want to add," he said. "We're going to roll out incrementally as we can. It's going to evolve week by week."

 

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