Commerce Queries

In its effort to catch-up in technology with Google Microsoft poured an astonishing amount of talent into its search effort. It was a real privilege to see how the team did grow from a small committed team into a well-oiled organization that would crank out new technology with an astonishing pace.

The economy of scale Google had gained for its search engine is a steep hill to climb for Bing. One of the key areas of innovation I saw and still see up to today are commerce queries. Answering commerce queries right in the search experience not only drives customer satisfaction but can also create strong economic value.

When I drove MSN Shopping I started to evangelize the concept of a database of commerce query for search – a concept that would be described by Danny Sullivan from Search Engine Land much more eloquently as Database of Intent. To better address commerce in search we moved MSN Shopping into the Bing organization (at that time still called MSN/Windows Live Search) and the service became shopping search.

My team drove features such as structured data ingestion and processing, query intent detection, and comparison-shopping features deep into the core of the Bing infrastructure. Query classification became the hallmark of our effort.

Commerce queries typically have a very regular structure build around brand and product names. Amassing query intent understanding became a focus and the underlying technology did quickly spread-out from our effort to other search products.

In an effort to amass the largest product selection in the market we pushed the technology to automatically extract product records from web pages and reached a catalog of 100 million products. However a catalog of crawled products is hard to monetize and the feed-based version with is pay-for-click and pay-for-transaction model was continued ultimately.

In an interesting twist Google has lately moved to a paid inclusion model that forces merchant to pay and fundamentally changes its previous position of not introducing advertising in algorithmic results. The move also reduces selection significantly a strange move for Google and it will be interesting how this turns out.

Commerce queries are an area ripe for innovation in search engines and the balance between selection (as seen from a user’s perspective) and the monetization model hasn’t been found. Search engines for commercial queries are competitors to marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay and that is where the battle ultimately will be fought.

One of the notable innovations Bing introduces was “cashback” a highly visible effort to help advertisers reach searchers with compelling offers, and to provide a shopping experience that would change user behavior and drive new users to Bing.

The effort was highly successful in getting customers to come to Bing to find great deals and to get merchants to run campaigns with great discounts. Recently however it was discontinued and for me the lesson learned is that bargain hunters are not very loyal users of a service. Nevertheless the project was a significant cross-team effort and deepened my interest in online ecosystems and monetization models.