Magazine article Information Today

New Web Technology: Shopping Agents

Magazine article Information Today

New Web Technology: Shopping Agents

Article excerpt

These services exhibit more of what the Web can do, and save you hassle

Shopping agents represent a Web-software category that once again makes both the Internet and the talented Web software developers shine. There is no better time to give an insight into what they are doing and how they are doing it than the holiday season.

Web superstores like do much more than save you the nightmare of trudging from shop to shop in the cold weather when your umbrella and heavy coat are not enough to protect you from the cold, the wind, and the rain. They also offer spiffy software and a Variety of departments for books, music, movies toys, etc. (An in-depth review of the three most well-known Web shops in this category can be found in the December edition of Peter's Digital Reference Shelf at Software agents go beyond this, and offer you the ultimate in shopping: finding the best price across a number of shops for the same merchandise. More than a year ago I wrote a story for Online magazine about shopping agents (Online, July 1998). Now there are some impressive new agents and new features in the older ones. I tested their capabilities at the end of October by going on a shopping spree for a few books, videos, audio CDs, CD-ROM/DVD-ROM databases, and CD-ReWritable drives. Given my space constraints, I'll just give you the skinny on the major characteristics of the shopping agents.

Types of Merchandise and the Number of Shops

Shopping agents now compete over which can offer the largest variety of merchandise, but I have more respect for the one-trick ponies that do an excellent job, such as Best Book Buys for books. It searches 26 Web bookstores, which are identified on its home page ( The shopping agents that cover a large variety of merchandise just cannot do the same good job in all areas.

The new Alta Vista shopping agent (, released a tad prematurely at the end of October, really stretches itself thin with its purported coverage. While it covers bookstores fairly well, its music search cannot yield good prices because it searched very few shops. For my test albums ("Forget About It" by Alison Krauss and "Single White Female" by Chely Wright), the only shop that came up with results was Alta Vista itself, and not with the best prices. Other agents that search for music offer far more sites with better prices. While Alta Vista licenses some data for its computer hardware and software merchandise from one of the best single-product-type shops, ZDNet's Computer Shopper (, it does not provide the extras (such as the buying guides I discuss below) that make the ZDNet site so complete.

Yahoo! Shopping ( is probably the largest shopping agent, as it scours the prices of "millions of items at thousands of Web stores." It would be nice to know whether it refers to 2 million or 20 million items, and 3,000 or 30,000 stores, but sample searches proved the claim that it is the shopping agent that reaches the most stores. This is no surprise, as it covers everything from books to flowers to jewelry. Its search abilities, however, promise more than they deliver, at least in the movie department. The search for the single word "Carmen" naturally brings up a number of opera and ballet video versions, so the user is happy to provide the name of the director, Carlos Saura, to distinguish the movie. Unfortunately, Yahoo! then retrieves movies that are directed by others than Saura. This is a good example of when more is less.

Search Capabilities

Different products have different traits that identify them uniquely, like ISBNs for books, or brand and model names for pieces of computer hardware. It is easy for an agent to offer a simple keyword search, but it would flood you with irrelevant merchandise unless you can easily limit your search to a specific type of product. …

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