Shopbots: Shopping Robots for Electronic Commerce

By Jacso, Peter | Online, July/August 1998 | Go to article overview

Shopbots: Shopping Robots for Electronic Commerce


Jacso, Peter, Online


electronic commerce has come of age. According to a study by IDC Research, Web commerce will grow from $2.6 billion in 1996 to over $200 billion by 2001. After years of tire-kicking and window-shopping at merchants' Web sites, users have started to spend serious money on the Web. Part of this boom is due to the attractive navigation and search tools cropping up on the Web, and to smart personal shopping agents called "shopbots."

TRADITIONAL INFORMATION RETRIEVAL & ELECTRONIC COMMERCE

Online shopping has many advantages. At your convenience, you can breeze through the floors of a Web department store in seconds, get from one shop to another or from one mall to another in no time flat. It takes only a click to get from Macy's in New York to a specialty store in Hong Kong, if you rely on one of the classified Internet shopping guides on the home pages of the major Internet directories, such as the Infoseek Shopping Channel or the Lycos Shopping Network. Independent Web sites also provide comprehensive lists of Web stores, such as IMALL Marketplace (http://ww.w.imall.com), or the All-Internet Shopping Directory (http://all-internet.com).

Merchants are also very anxious to get you to visit their virtual stores, placing banner ads on other sites to attract potential customers to their doorsteps. From there, the merchant offers browsable product directories, searchable databases, detailed textual information, and even product photographs. The best sites show the features and price of two or three brands or models side by side in a tabular format. Microsoft's CarPoint even shows you the interior of many of the cars in video clips where the user can control the speed and direction of the camera.

Many large online bookstores offer more sophisticated browsing and searching facilities than the online public access catalogs of libraries. The music and video stores list the tracks of the albums selected, the names of the contributing artists, and many show images of the front and the back of the album, and offer 30-second song samples. When did you get anything like that from the catalog of your A/V library?

True, the punctuation may not follow the AACR2 rules or their interpretations by the Library of Congress, but that's okay as long as the customers can find the books, movies, videos, cassettes, or CDs of their favorite authors, actresses, directors, conductors, or crooners. As a matter of fact, I have not seen any library catalog that has such perfect authority control as the Internet Movie Database. It also leaves every library film and video catalog in the dust when it comes to uniform, alternate, variant, parallel, translated, original, and you-name-it titles, or pen names and pseudo names.

SMART SHOPPING AGENTS

I am going to rave about a special software category that makes online shopping even better. These are "shopbots," or shopping robots that take your query, visit shops that may have your product, bring back the results and present them in a consolidated and compact format that allows comparison shopping at a glance (or two).

The only traditional information retrieval system with anything similar to this is the OneSearch feature of Dialog (and in some ways its DIALINDEX, Journal Name Finder, Product Name Finder, and Company Name Finder databases). A seasoned cross-database searcher will particularly appreciate how effectively shopbots treat the syntax variations in titles, and names of authors, artists, performers, and products across the databases of various shops.

Most shopbots currently specialize in shopping for books, music and video merchandise, consumer electronics products (TVs, VCRs, CD players), and computer hardware and software. They query merchants' databases simultaneously when you present your request-acting somewhat like Dialog's OneSearch that goes to the databases specified by the user, runs the queries in all of them, and posts the results. …

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