Starting with this post I am wading into the area of vertical price comparison engines — sites that specialize in certain niches.
Books, movies and music seem to represent a niche where a comparison engine is relatively easy to implement and as the result it is very popular among small-scale startups (credit card offers is probably another such example).
There are several popular old-timers in the niche but instead I would like to cover a few very little known companies that have been playing with some amazing web technologies and doing a few innovative things compared to the legacy heavy-hitters.
The most noticeable functionality that sets these sites apart is the ability to combine several items in a group (bundle) and compare prices for that group as if it was one item. Since these websites know how much it will cost to ship the bundle to you they can calculate the bottom line — weather you order the items separately or from the same store.
All of the reviewed here websites make a good job visually presenting the search results so that you have essential information up front with cross links to relevant items that might be of an interest to you. The kind of links are those to items by the same author (books), the same artist (movies and music), or from similar category.
Ugenie is probably the most functionality rich price comparison engine reviewed here. The tags and public bundles are there to satisfy the most demanding users and affiliate program is to catch the eye of webmasters.
Ugenie shouldn’t complain about lack of publicity. Covered by TechCrunch and other blogs it is the only vertical engine in the niche that I know to have attracted financing from the side. The startup has offices in California and Bangalore, India.
- During search users
a) can exclude merchants by name or rating — in case I have merchant preferences, I can permanently exclude some from the search
b) can exclude coupons — this is useful if you for some reason cannot use the coupons Ugenie is trying to apply
- Textbooks integration — university students can list textbooks by entering the department and term information. Double checking the list before you order the books would probably be a good idea
- Tags integration — I like this feature which helps me find relevant books. I didn’t like the fact that there is not easy access to the list of all tags. Since Ugenie doesn’t make use of categories this can be a problem if you don’t know what to search and just came to browse books
- Public bundles — popular groups (bundles) that people create become public and can be viewed by everyone. This is a great tool to find relevant books which people often buy together. Kind of works similar to “Customers who bought this item also bought” you often see at Amazon
- In bundled search, no way to see all merchants — this is partially compensated by the ability to exclude merchants. Yet I would appreciate the full list and easiness to pick my favorite merchants that comes with it
- No book rating and few book reviews — compared to the other two websites Ugenie doesn’t make use of Amazon API to display the book ratings and reviews.
Note, Ugenie is currently running a promotion. Spend $50 on books — get a movie ticket, spend $80 — get two. Promotion ends January 25, 2007. Tickets expire March 31, 2007. More details available from the company blog.
BooksPrice is a self financed startup based in New York. The website is very nicely built and has simple and easy to use interface. Lucy Orbach, a co-founder, has recently sent me an email with details on new functionality they have just added: RSS price watcher (read below for details).
I liked the idea of internet browser toolbar that launches price comparison by selecting an ISBN and clicking on a toolbar button, but somehow it didn’t work in Firefox 2.0 which I am using. The link2us section explains how webmasters can install a BooksPrice branded link or a widget on their site or blog.
- During search users
a) can select international shipping — might appeal to international users who buy from US merchants,
b) can apply store membership — e.g. if I have Amazon prime membership (free shipping on all orders) Booksprice will take it into account when calculating the final price
- Amazon wish-list integration — I wasn’t able to verify how it works but presumably you can find an Amazon wishlist by name or email and work off of the list when comparing the prices
- RSS price watcher — announced just last week RSS price watcher is an alternative way to keep track of book price changes. Instead of signing up to an email alert you subscribe to RSS feed for a specific item.
- In search results: no sales tax estimate — in my example Walmart results came on top even though if sales tax is taken into consideration Walmart will not be the best deal
- Incorrect results in bundle search with one-time use coupons, no way to exclude coupons — in my example TextbooksRus was quoted as having the best deal however the results assumed I could apply Google Checkout $10 coupon to each book in the bundle. This is obviously wrong since it is a one-time use coupon and can only be applied once to the entire purchase
- Comparison cart section sometimes disappears and there is no link to access it — this is most likely a UI bug. As soon as I start adding books, the cart shows back up with all my books in there
- No user accounts — this makes things a little harder for return users. You have to configure your preferences each time you come back. The default configuration has worked fine for me though
I was able to find very little information on CompareBook. The about page doesn’t say much while domain is registered to Alliance Enterprises LLC in Utah. CompareBook seem to be trying to set themselves apart from the competitors by offering the lowest price guarantee on the books you buy via the website.
- Price alert functionality — traditional email alert functionality. Receive an email whenever the lowest price for the book of your choice drops.
- Lowest price guarantee — an interesting twist in the CompareBook marketing campaign. The price you pay is actually guaranteed to be the lowest at the time of the purchase. Certain limitations apply
- Multi-level category hierarchy — makes browsing books similar to browsing files on your hard drive.
- Few search customization options — CompareBook has the least search customization options among the three websites reviewed here. Also I couldn’t find a way to tell apart new from used books in the bundle mode.
- Slow search — as I was comparing these websites side by side the searches on CompareBook were taking longest to execute
- No user accounts — CompareBook doesn’t support user accounts. However with so few customization options this is not much of an issue
- Books only, no movies or music — unlike its competitors CompareBook compares only books. I would prefer to have single place to come for all these things.
The new breed of price comparison engines feature eye catching user interface and functionality that should be more than sufficient for an average bargain hunter. Each engine covers around 30 merchants and offers some distinctive features. Overall Ugenie seems to be the leader functionality wise however the difference is not that significant — it is surely not enough to pay back the $5 million financing they received last year.
Compared to the old-timers, none of the new websites seem to include eBay into the search. If this feature is critical for you go to AllBookStores or AddAll instead. Here is another observation. Pricegrabber, one of the horizontal search engines in my list, has a feature called Bottomline which in essence does bundling. However since this is not a specialized search engine the list of supported book retailers is much shorter.
I personally couldn’t make up my mind which website I prefer. I like the categories of CompareBooks, search customization of Ugenie, and the full list of bundled results at BooksPrice. I didn’t like the absence of sale tax estimate at BooksPrice, the absence of books ratings in Ugenie, and the fact that I cannot compare movies/music at CompareBook. Have you made your choice? Which website do you like?