Many websites embrace Google’s advertising services as effective programs for driving traffic and bringing in new customers. Yet one of Google’s most recent ventures could spark new competition between Google and media or ecommerce companies by owning a larger share of the online shopping experience.
Google’s launch last month of Boutiques.com is the first output of its August acquisition of Like.com. At its core, Like.com is “visual search” technology applied to products. Similar to other comparison shopping sites, merchants could have product feeds indexed by the site and pay cost-per-click fees for the traffic generated. Unique to the Like.com model, users could search by color, pattern, and shape or style of the products. With the Like.com visual recognition technology, a click on one product might return results of any other products that were similar in appearance.
Boutiques.com is a fresh direction for Google and a more sophisticated offering than its ecommerce foundation, Google Product Search. Where exposure in Google Products Search is free for online merchants and much more dependent on old-fashioned keyword searches, Boutiques.com says it will generate money by charging merchants a cost-per-click fee for traffic it drives back to online stores.
With the launch of Boutiques.com, Google has dressed up the visual search technology into a website where users browse through high-fashion apparel and accessories based on styles, silhouettes, and trends. Like.com co-founder Munjal Shah describes the Boutiques offering as, “a collection of curated experiences.”
Users can create a personalized shopping experience; items they like are saved to their own style boutique, which also includes recommended products based on their answers to taste-preference questions. There are also curated “boutiques” from a variety of celebrities, bloggers, and designers. Each boutique can be followed by users, building up a base of fans for influential fashionistas.
In his blog post announcing the new site, Shah said that, while the web may be ideal for shopping for items like electronics and equipment, “for soft goods, such as clothing and accessories, it’s not the same as shopping in a store.” A comparable shopping experience still can’t be had online. Some of that experience might include browsing, window shopping, and the serendipity of finding something beautiful while riffling through racks of clothes.
With this new emphasis on prolonged browsing and curated shopping, Google is moving into an area of the customer shopping experience that has so far been dominated by online media and ecommerce sites.
Still, Boutiques.com isn’t entirely unique. The site is strikingly similar to another social shopping site, ShopStyle.com, which also catalogs fashion from boutiques, designers, and department stores. ShopStyle gives users the opportunity to set up their own stylebooks, save items they love, and host various fashion groups. Shoppers browse through products by brand, designer, price, color, and other style refinements. Online publisher Sugar Inc acquired ShopStyle in 2007. Today, ShopStyle products are accessible via widgets on a variety of blogs and Sugar sites.
ShopStyle isn’t the only media-backed website trying to profit from collected and curated shopping experiences. Just on the heels of the Boutiques.com arrival, magazine InStyle launched StyleFind.com on November 30th. StyleFind also aggregates designer clothing and beauty products from a variety online stores. InStyle fashion editors curate the collection, putting an emphasis on browsing via editors’ picks or current trends. StyleFind may lack Boutiques’ visual search technology, but it incorporates the same style editor recommendations an InStyle reader might find. If the model is successful, parent company Time Inc. could role out future sites associated with other publications like People, People StyleWatch, and Real Simple.
Sites like StyleFind and ShopStyle offer media publishers, who often influence users’ buying habits, a revenue model to begin capitalizing on that influence. With Boutiques.com and any forthcoming similar launches, Google is further diversifying its own revenue stream and moving into this same market.
One goal of these fashion-finding sessions is to land shoppers on the product page of an online store. With the ability to first sort through an array of stores, products, and price points before alighting upon the perfect item, shoppers may enjoy a more rewarding experience. However, the browse and discovery stages of buying are also touchpoints that ecommerce stores hope to own. As customers spend more time interacting with products on other sites, loyalty may wane.
Online fashion retailers like Net-a-Porter, Revolve Clothing, and ShopBop are perfect matches to Boutiques’ target market, but they’ve evolved to employ their own social shopping features, curated merchandising, and visual displays. Net-a-Porter features style boutiques and magazine editorials. Revolve also has an on-site magazine and a boutiques component that, like Boutiques.com, allows users to create their own fashion hubs or follow favorites curated by designers, celebrities, and fashion-forward friends. ShopBop, a subsidiary of online behemoth Amazon, places weight on a constantly updating array of lookbooks and photographic spreads.
It remains to be seen what kind of traction Boutiques.com will gain amongst fashionphiles and online shoppers. However it seems clear Google isn’t hesitant about owning more of the online shopping experience. In the future, online media and retailer websites may find Google not just an advertising partner but also an encroaching competitor.