I've just spent much of the last few days discussing Google with a sharp reporter from Fortune Small Business. We spent most of our time talking about strategic directions for the company, asking questions about how free wi-fi, Open Office via Sun Microsystems, and the Google toolbar all fit together (and, yes, they do), but what's most stuck in my head is trying to figure out the answer to the question:
Froogle + Google Base = ?
For a long time I've paid close attention to Froogle, Google's shopping engine, waiting for the company to put some energy into really making it a full member of the Google family. But still, even with yet another facelift, it languishes and isn't discussed or used very much, as far as I can see. And yet compared to just about any other online "shopping engine'", Froogle has two fabulous things going for it from a vendor's perspective: inclusion in Froogle is free and Froogle = Google.
So what's missing? Why isn't Froogle a compelling and interesting shopping engine?
One place to look is Yahoo Shopping: with its aggregation of thousands of Yahoo stores, Yahoo Shopping is in fact a splendid place to research purchases and compare prices. (and shopping in the future will be all about price as we move into a fully commoditized future, the implications of which my co-author and I explore in our upcoming book Let Go To Grow).
The only stores and products represented in Yahoo Shopping, however, are those that are actually paying the monthly fee to have a Yahoo Store. If you already have an ecommerce solution or online store, is it really worth it to have a duplicate store at Yahoo just to get into their shopping engine? (perhaps, there are certainly some high-profile vendors that also have a presence on Yahoo Shopping, including Crabtree & Evelyn, Cirque du Soleil, Vermont Teddy Bear and the Guggenheim)
Another site to compare is Amazon's merchant program. Amazon is perhaps more interesting than Yahoo because it has its own store, plus it has a high-level partnership with a small number of larger merchants (including Borders, J&R Music, and Toys "R" Us), and then it has thousands of smaller merchants offering products through Amazon Marketplace or even Amazon auctions. But, again, to get into the Amazon world of online shopping, you have to pay and you have to sell through their system.
Doesn't it seem that the 800-pound gorilla, Google, should be able to eclipse these sort of solutions with its free-for-merchants alternative?
There are other players in the shopping engine world too, of course, including the slowly decreasing set of shopping comparison sites like Shopping.com and NexTag, but they're easily matched and are frankly lackluster services anyway.
What about eBay? Well, eBay is another company that is very savvy and it's no surprise to see that more and more of the transactions on the site are non-auction transactions: eBay now has a bunch of different selling formats, including fixed price, best offer, store inventory, and more. eBay is an interesting contender as a shopping engine, especially with its earlier acquisition and absorption of Half.com, but, again, there's the same limitation: you can't have your products in the eBay engine unless you pay to include them.
And so we circle back to Google and its Froogle engine.
The main problem with Froogle, in my opinion, is that it's too darn hard to add products to the system. It's a puzzling text-only file format that takes quite a while to master (I discuss it in my Google book, actually).
But put Froogle and Google Base together and all of a sudden you solve the problem. No worry about weird or tedious data formats, and a simple web-based data management system for inventory pops up. In fact, here's proof from Google that this is where things are heading:
If you have a physical store, visit Google Base
to upload your inventory and display it on Froogle's local shopping results.
Where's that bullet point located? On the Froogle Welcome Page, right up top.
So now we can see the answer start to crystallize:
Froogle + Google Base = Google Shopping
That's the equation. Stay tuned, we're going to see a much bigger push from Google in this area. It's a very logical direction for growth, and the combination of Google Shopping and the increasingly sophisticated geotargeting ad options through AdWords are going to usher in a new generation of online shopping for all of us, a venue where any merchant will be able to have their products listed in what will quickly become the #1 shopping engine on the Web (do you doubt it?)
If you're a shopper, don't forget to use Froogle for researching prices and competitive offerings, and if you're a merchant now's the time to start connecting your inventory management system with Google Base to ensure that you're in Froogle.
It's the next big thing.