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In the online shopping space, the only differences between the players are on the surface, in their branding and marketing. Typically, shopping engines list retail feeds in search results on a pay-per-click basis, which means consumers find the same results from the same feeds across most of the major sites. This has created a lack of brand affinity, which leads consumers to default to the major search engines to find products to buy online or locally offline.

Pronto, the latest contender in the crowded online shopping space, is attempting to be a destination site that offers this elusive brand affinity. The site differentiates itself with a more user-centric model than those of other shopping engines. Instead of offering 100 percent sponsored listings, it includes all possible listings in its organic-style search results.

Pronto does this by taking retail feeds and also crawling the Web for retail feeds using a proprietary technology. This has allowed it to list 45 million products from 52,000 retailers, compared with the 5,000 to 10,000 retailers other shopping engines offer, says Dan Marriott, Pronto’s chief executive officer.

Limiting results to sponsored listings not only compromises the integrity of search, according to Marriott, but also limits the scope of results. As a result, most shopping engines, independent of branding, seem the same.

“I compare this to shopping at a store where two-thirds of the shelves are empty,” Marriott says.

Another problem with such sites is that retailers don’t supply feeds for items with insignificant return on investment because of the paid inclusion models the shopping engines have in place.

“Most retailers are sending a third of products to shopping engines because of ROI. They’ll list a digital camera, for example, but not the camera case or lens cover,” says John Foley, Pronto’s chief operating officer. Free inclusion in organic results, the thinking goes, will considerably boost the number of retail feeds.

The company also offers a browser plug-in that follows Web searchers to different shopping sites and alerts them if they come across a product for which Pronto has a less expensive listing. This user-centric approach is also meant to drive traffic, which Pronto can then leverage in signing paid advertisers through sponsored links it displays above and below organic results.

The company has essentially taken Google’s search engine result pages model and brought it to online comparison shopping where, Marriott contends, it makes the most sense.

The Bottom Line: Because there is a lack of effective branding in the online shopping space and most of the traffic comes from product searches on major engines like Google, it will be difficult to get users to go straight to Pronto. The company will also have to appeal to advertisers with a model that is different from what they are used to at other shopping engines. However, the model’s similarity to Google’s paid search advertising could bode well for its selling efforts.

Still, any attempted paradigm shift in online products brings significant challenges in consumer and advertiser education and marketing. On the plus side, Marriott contends the company’s unique crawling technology — a vestige of defunct search technology company Wiz Bang — would be difficult to replicate. More important, according to Foley, is that replicating this model would require other shopping engines (some owned by public companies) to take a step back in terms of the short-term revenue levels they have reached in pulling in only paid listings. So its competitive differentiation is well-protected, at least for the time being.

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