Online Shoppers Beware!

Online shopping has gotten more challenging this season. Have you noticed the fine print on Google’s shopping site? Down at the bottom it reads “Google is compensated by some of these merchants. Tax and shipping costs are estimates.”

Several months ago, I noticed Google’s announcement of their change to the way they would rank search results in the shopping area. I also noticed around that time that the results I got from searching there weren’t always the best price. I could often find a better deal if I just searched Google (not Google Shopping) for what I wanted, even if I sorted Google Shopping by lowest price, which isn’t on option in a regular search.

What this means is that you’re getting fed what advertisers want you to see, not what you’re really searching for. The same stores pop up over and over, and the same stores (sometimes with better prices) get omitted. Usually this means the little guys get left out and the big operators are the ones who show up. It also means you might miss out on some good products. It’s one thing if you’re searching for a particular item by brand name (you’ll find it somewhere); it’s another if you’re searching for a broader category, like “maple syrup” (you may only find the brands and suppliers who’ve paid for you to find them).

As a result of these changes, I’ve begun to trust Google less and less, and I’ve found their site to be less useful than it was a year ago. I’ve gone back to searching multiple shopping sites like Yahoo Shopping, Dealtime, Shopping.com, Shopzilla, and Pricegrabber. And of course, if I’m shopping for computers or other electronics, I might try price comparisons at CNetMacWorld, or ZDnet. I’d love to find one site that could query them all, but haven’t run across it yet. It’s not that I trust these sites much more than Google, but at least if I search multiple ways, I’m more likely to find what I’m looking for.

At the same time, I’ve also gotten more concerned with how these sites and the ones I land on are tracking my actions online. Recently I’ve started using Duck Duck Go instead of Google for basic searches (though their shopping search hasn’t been that helpful, since I can’t sort by price, etc.). And I’m trying out Ghostery to block the tracking elements on these pages. We’ll see if the ads I’m shown stop being geared towards what I’ve recently searched on!

All this is to say that the old adage, “Buyer Beware,” takes on even more meaning online. It’s something I’ve known for a long time, though you get lulled into the new status quo of online shopping easily enough. Google’s changes didn’t come as a big surprise, really. Those changes, and recent news reports of online tracking, just served as the most recent eye-opener. Am I surprised that Google and other shopping sites need to earn a profit and will sell advertisement (as well as data on my shopping habits) in order to do so? No. But I do need the occasional reminder that this is what they’re up to. And as shopping sites change their practices, I need to be prepared to change my shopping habits as well.

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