Do It Yourself E-Commerce, Part 5: Managing Channels and Feeds

Recognizing the mutual benefit that accrues to helping their online merchants succeed, e-commerce hosting companies, along with e-tailers themselves, are driving demand for software applications that can help them better manage and grow their businesses.

“Our mission is to organize the world’s information,” Emily White, Google’s director of online sales and operations, told the E-Commerce Times.

“In order to do that, we are always thinking about ways in which technology can improve upon existing ways of accessing information by exploring new areas, services and ideas that make information more actionable to users, advertisers and publishers,” she explained.

“From researching school projects to finding the local pizza place, consumers are increasingly going online to find all kinds of information,” White observed. “We’re continuing to develop technologies that will allow small businesses to market themselves online in the most efficient and cost-effective way.”

This final installment in our five-part series on do-it-yourself e-commerce highlights the importance of effectively managing channels and feeds to achieve success.

Part 1 takes a look at some of the factors driving the growth of the small business e-tail marketplace, as well as some of the major players involved.

Part 2 focuses on key issues and system attributes that aspiring e-tailers should consider when developing their business plans and choosing hosting solutions.

Part 3 examines how, and why, a growing number of entrepreneurs — as well as established brick-and-mortar retailers — are following in the footsteps of the door-to-door seller by launching their own e-tail businesses.

Part 4 provides some insight into how e-commerce do it yourselfers can take advantage of an important online shopping tool: comparison shopping engines (CSEs).

Effective Product Manipulation

Merchant Advantage, a budding developer of e-tail applications and tools based in Miami, in mid-September joined the ProStores Developers Network and launched two applications aimed at helping smaller e-tailers to create better feeds and to manage them effectively.

“Channel Management is a tool which allows a merchant to gather their product data from one or more storefronts, manipulate that product data for the purposes of better marketing, reformat the data and, finally, pick and choose what products to market on which channels — we refer to this as ‘catalog dipping,'” said Merchant Advantage CEO Michael Lambert.

“Some of the product manipulation includes auto reassigning categories for each of the channels, auto creating keywords, and even auto imports and exports — all making things easier for the merchant,” he noted.

“The ability to pick and choose which product to send to the channels [relies] heavily on having the knowledge of which products are performing — and, more importantly, which are not performing — well,” Lambert emphasized. “The Chanalytics application was created to provide merchants with important real-time statistical feedback, completing the marketing cycle.”

Merchants are charged monthly, based on usage, for the two applications. Now set at US$245, the monthly rate is affordable for the smallest of e-tailers. “Our application makes those duties for any company, small to large, easy [compared] to what they were doing before, and the usual feedback from our merchants is that they now can do what took them two hours for each channel feed in just 15 minutes,” Lambert claimed.

The ability to create and manage their comparison engine data feeds on their own, without outsourcing to a third party, is a huge advantage to e-tailers, he continued.

“Merchants can now create or modify product information such as keywords; select categories — or we can auto assign them — and then cross-reference those categories for each channel,” Lambert pointed out. “[They can also] add or remove appropriate marketing jargon, or convert cryptic ‘shopping cart’ code — codes or partial names which only hold value to the merchant — to valuable marketing data.”

Hostage Data

As in any new and fast-growing field, there are limitations and complications associated with CSEs and data feeds, and these have opened up opportunities for third-party application developers.

Not all e-commerce platforms are created equal. “Some — for example, Infopia — are able to produce engine-specific feeds while others — such as Yahoo — require third-party processing and hosting to ensure images are always displayed,” Aaron Rosenthal, director of channels research at Marketing Experiments, told the E-Commerce Times.

“While many of the platforms are becoming increasingly sympathetic to the need for easy CSE integration, I am not aware of one platform that would handle all of the features — single feed, simple editing and dependable conversion metrics — needed for me to consider them a complete solution. In most cases, third-party developers are simply providing increased usability, flexibility and efficiency over that which is offered form the CSEs,” he added.

As is commonly the case with developing markets and technologies, different vendors have taken different positions with regard to their data feed policies. They also have different approaches when it comes to the openness of their platforms and e-tailer data to third-party developers — and their own e-tailers.

“When refining our application, we found that the biggest difficulty for merchants was the lack of compatibility of shopping carts to release their data,” explained Michael Lambert.

“The merchants’ data was, in essence, being held hostage by the shopping cart software. We found the ProStores platform powerful — but, more importantly, its strong infrastructure allowed us — and others as well — to easily work with the data from within the merchants’ cart. … The fact that ProStores considered it important to offer their merchants these enhanced marketing features is a very good sign of their commitment to the online retail community,” he added.

Continually upgrading its e-commerce platform and adding software applications and development partners, is part and parcel of eBay subsidiary ProStores’ business strategy, ProStores Director Julian Green told the E-Commerce Times.

“ProStores has launched four upgrades since the product was announced. The company leads the industry in its commitment to innovation and providing tools that make it continually easier for SMBs (small and medium-sized businesses) to build business online. We will continue to innovate, [and add] product features and functionality that merchants require and request, helping them become more successful,” Green promised.

The Ideal Data Feed

Another area where third-party developers are having an impact and are helping e-tailers overcome e-commerce platform limitations is product image hosting and presentation.Such is the case with Yahoo Stores, which frequently changes the location of images to protect bandwidth, according to Rosenthal.

“YStoreTools and Solid Cactus have both developed platforms to host images elsewhere to avoid images disappearing for CSEs,” he noted.

There are a number of key attributes that would make an “ideal” CSE data feed, suggested Rosenthal. “The most powerful application that we could envision for advertisers is the development of a single platform to launch, edit and manage a single data feed which may then be syndicated to all CSEs.”

Also making the ideal feed attribute list is full editing capability for product titles and descriptions for each feed individually. “While I do [emphasize] the need for a single data feed, it is [also] necessary to maintain the ability to edit a feed for each engine,” he said. “The optimization for specific CSEs can be important, as different verticals do well on different engines.”

Image hosting for nonstandard products is another feature that the Marketing Experiments team feels would fill an important need — as are speed and ease of use, and the inclusion of key sales metrics such as conversion rates and ROI (return on investment).

What’s ultimately at stake here? “Access to a large number of consumers deep into the sales cycle,” Rosenthal said.

“Nearly all users on a CSE are looking to purchase something and can ‘window shop’ without clicking, whereas with traditional search engines, users often need to click on an ad to gain basic information resulting in cost but no sale. Without the CSEs, merchants are missing out on a large portion of extremely qualified traffic, resulting in a potentially significant loss of revenue,” he cautioned.

“In my experience with product focused sites, the ROI from comparison shopping engines often outperforms that of traditional search engines,” concluded Rosenthal. ” As popularity of CSEs increases amongst consumers and cost-per-click increases across all paid search channels, it is quickly shifting to an indispensable part of any low-cost retailer’s advertising inventory.”

Do It Yourself E-Commerce, Part 1: Now Bigger and Better

Do It Yourself E-Commerce, Part 2: Nuts and Bolts

Do It Yourself E-Commerce, Part 3: Taking Care of Business

Do It Yourself E-Commerce, Part 4: Comparison Shopping Engines

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