Comparison Shop 'Til You Drop

Comparison-shopping sites like MySimon.com and CompareNet.com have been around for a while, but this was the week they piqued the interest of two different Forbes scribes. In a military-themed piece titled "Spiders and Lies," Daniel Fisher described "secret counter-counteragents that can slip past the gates" of sites that try to block the bots that power many comparison sites. In online retailing's Cold War, sites that once vied to beat traditional retailers' prices now focus on undercutting each other's.

The first company Fisher examined, Ichoose.com, is a comparison-shopping company that doesn't use bots. Most of its information comes from the Web sites themselves, the rest from human shoppers. Ichoose's software offers price comparisons, but it can also "sense" when a customer is about to leave an e-commerce site for somewhere cheaper. Then, the original site can counteroffer with a better price. "In essence, Ichoose serves both sides of a transaction, wrote Fisher, "giving shoppers new reason to leave a site for better prices elsewhere - yet also selling sites the weaponry for stopping such defections."

Human Webmasters can sometimes confuse robot shoppers by frequently changing a site's design so price information isn't where the bot found it last time. That ruse won't work with Liaison Technology's software. It's also gotten past anti-hacking measures blocking computers that repeatedly hit the same Web site.

"We're careful to present our traffic to a Web site as being typical of human usage," said Liaison's chief technology officer, "which also, by the way, makes it difficult to know it's our software." Ooh, camouflage. Liaison trades its secrets to companies like Dell, which uses it to monitor competitors' and suppliers' prices.

With so many ways around the blocks, what's a bot-hating e-shop to do? It's legal for sites like eBay to block bots like those at Auctionwatch.com, but it's also legal for Auctionwatch to look for a way around it. Or, if you're Amazon.com, you can buy a comparison-shopping company and put your own prices (high or low) at the top of the list. According to Fisher, that what happens since Amazon bought Junglee, whose technology now appears on Amazon's Web site.

Elsewhere on Forbes' Web site, columnist John Dvorak feared that shopping bots would turn e-commerce generic. Eventually, he wrote, all e-retailers will have to match the lowest price, and when everything costs the same, only the big names will stay in business. "Bottom line: Shopping bots will kill e-commerce as we've begun to know it," wrote Dvorak. Maybe. But this war has been waged for a while already, and no one's declared a winner yet.

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