Google takes the pun out of shopping

Search firm rebrands "Froogle" as "Product Search" and shifts away from a vertical search strategy for shopping. Images: Google's new Froogle

Acknowledging that it's better to be clear than clever, Google is rebranding "Froogle" as "Google Product Search" and simplifying the interface to match the main search site, a top executive said on Wednesday.

Froogle was launched in late 2002 when it was trendy for portals to have vertical sites dedicated to specific industries or areas. But the site didn't grow fast, and Google removed the link to the site from its main page last year.

Now, Google Product Search will still be a site for searching shopping listings only, but the most relevant listings in Product Search will also appear in the main search site in a "one-box" area above the organic results, which are the most relevant unpaid search listings. The one-box area snags results from other specialized Google search sites, like Google News.

Google Product Search also will boost awareness of Google Checkout online payment service by allowing searchers to set the results to display only items from merchants that offer a Google Checkout option.

The ill-named Froogle was a problem from the start. "I don't think we understood the complications with rolling out another brand," Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search product and user experience, said in an interview with CNET "While it was a cute and clever name, it had issues around copyright and trademark, as well as internationalization?The pun (to "frugal") isn't obvious."

"This rebranding is long overdue. Nobody really understood what Froogle was," said Greg Sterling, principal of consultancy Sterling Market Intelligence. "And it reflects a transition of the company from one that had a whimsical attitude about its products to one that's more serious about itself and its products.

"Froogle has been around so long. They didn't have a consistent product strategy or direction then," said Chris Sherman, executive editor of Search Engine Land. "I don't think it was failing, but it clearly wasn't gaining the traction other shopping search sites were."

Rather than encourage people to go to specific sites for specialized search, which is what vertical sites do, Google wants them to go to first and find the best results from its own specialized searches there. And most people do start their searches, for everything from cars to houses to jobs, on a major search site, experts say. Recent statistics from online traffic measurement firm Hitwise found that search engines are the primary way that Internet users navigate to key industry categories.

Google had another naming mishap with the site that is used to feed content into Product Search. Google Base, which is a reference to "database," also causes confusion among consumers who don't know what it is for and what the name means. Google Base was launched in late 2005 as a site for people and merchants to list their events, items and services for sale, or even just content they wanted to share with the world, like recipes. Word of the site had leaked in the weeks prior to the announcement with speculation that, with the site, Google was taking on Craigslist and even eBay.

But Mayer says Google Base isn't intended to be competition for e-commerce companies. "Faceted search is an important part of the process," allowing people to search for part-time versus full-time jobs and to search for a five-bedroom house, she said. "We know that's important to search and that's something Google hasn't done particularly well in the past."

Google Base has millions of individual listings from about 30,000 sources, according to Mayer. The site will probably eventually have advertising, she said.

A cursory probe of how well Google Base listings fare on found mixed results. Not all of the listings in Google Base show up, only the ones where Google has collected a lot of data, Mayer said. For instance, Google is getting enough real estate listings from agents that those listings at the top. Searching on for "houses san Francisco" offers up the ability to refine the search by location or listing type, such as foreclosure, sublet or for sale. The same happens when searching for cars, jobs, recipes and even personals.

While car dealers might get sales from listing in Google Base, consumers aren't likely to fare as well because they probably won't make it to Google's main search page. If there aren't enough of the same type of listings and the descriptions of the items are not detailed to allow for refined search, then the listing may not appear on Checks with someone selling Akita puppies and someone offering flight training revealed that they saw no sales leads from their Google Base listings.

A case study on culinary Web site provided by Google said the company didn't see any results from its recipe listings on Google Base until it added descriptors such as cuisine type, course and main ingredient. Then traffic to the site jumped 6 percent immediately.

"If a merchant is not getting any exposure they're not entering the information correctly," said Brian Smith, an analyst at Comparison Engines and a co-founder of Single Feed, which helps merchants get onto shopping search engines, including Google Base.

Smith said he thinks Google Base is a threat to shopping and other vertical sites, but doesn't think toppling them is Google's goal. "Google just wants to organize the world's information. They don't care where it's from," said Smith.

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