Buyer’s Beware

There’s absolutely no question that the Internet represents the most powerful bargaining chip consumers have had in the history of shopping. ShopBots deliver on one of the great promises of electronic commerce and the Internet: a radical reduction in the cost of obtaining and distributing information. But keep in mind that this tool we use to empower ourselves, can be used to mislead us.

Different Results

If you notice, ShopBots do not always provide the lowest price on every item, every time. For instance, when you’re hunting for products, some ShopBots will check out the prices at popular web merchant sites, but not always other merchant websites. Plus, the price of a product can vary as much as $100 from the “same” Internet merchant’s site. It can depend on whether you found the price through a shopping link, on a Web page, or through a ShopBot search engine.

It is also because they have relationships with particular merchants, varying depths of stored databases, and differing levels of search technology. There are some ShopBots that return results only for sites they have relationships with. Others crawl many sites, but move results for merchants with which they have affiliations to the top. Remember, there are no “pure” comparison-shopping sites. Many sites have arrangements with merchants to display the retailer’s goods in a search. They need to make revenue somehow, and advertising is not the most reliable way on the Web.

Merchant Affiliations

ShopBots may have affiliations with hundreds of merchants, and it’s often impossible to know which ones. In some instances, you’ll find information about affiliations on the ShopBot’s site, but in most cases, you just won’t know if a ShopBot is favoring particular merchant sites. Only the boldest retailers will deploy ShopBots that list affiliations and competitor offerings. The problems come when a merchant pays the ShopBot a fee, and when you search for a particular item, that particular retailer always comes up on top. Some users might think the price on top is the cheapest, but it is not necessarily true.

MySimon, unlike some agents, doesn’t charge merchants to be part of its searches. Instead, its business model is built on commissions of 2-5% of each sale, made to a buyer who accessed the site through a MySimon search. Merchants also have the option of paying to post logos or ad banners on the MySimon site. Also, Yahoo) charges its 75 affiliates to join Yahoo’s service; where as Excite has signed up over 500 affiliates free of charge. These differing approaches have serious implications for merchants depending on these services.

What can you do about ShopBot bias?

To remove a ShopBot’s bias, use one with good sorting features, and then sort the results by price. Do the same with at least a few additional ShopBots. The merchants themselves can make the process even trickier. Some include shipping in the advertised price; others add it later. Still, others add a “handling” charge “after” you’ve entered your credit-card information. When you add in the shipping cost of the product, it dramatically rearranges which was the best price on the original search. When you buy online, you should conduct at least three searches.

Sometimes, the best price will come from the manufacturer itself, or even your local retailer. But taking a few ShopBots along on your next online shopping trip can pay big dividends. Just remember to check more than one ShopBot, sort results by price, and pay close attention to online merchants’ shipping and handling policies before you make a purchase. And keep in mind that the price you found yesterday, might change tomorrow.


So buyer beware: The results given by a ShopBot may be skewed toward merchants that have agreements with a specific site. Even so, ShopBots are really good for consumers. By providing large amounts of information quickly and easily they put shoppers in a position of power. When several retailers sell the exact same item for different prices, it’s easy to see which offers the best deal.

Author: David Jurus