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Shopping for Shopping Search Engines

At this point, I have a difficult time imagining that I once had to make major purchases without knowing what dozens of different retailers charged for a given product. The Web's price-finding search engines have spoiled me rotten in that respect -- even if the quest for perfect knowledge about a given gadget's pricing sometimes gets in way of actually buying the thing.

But which site should I use? It would be a mistake to keep plugging my queries into the same old search engine when competitors may yield a lower price. So I thought I'd see how four major shopping search sites -- Google Product Search, PriceGrabber.com, Microsoft's Live Search Cashback and Yahoo Shopping -- did in a few sample queries.

All four sites operate in the same basic manner, asking you to type in a product's name and then returning a set of links to click through to retailers -- though too often they will serve up multiple sets of results instead of a single low-to-high list of prices. They all include users' ratings of these stores, but PriceGrabber, Live Search Cashback and Yahoo can also estimate shipping and sales tax based on your Zip code. Cashback, a recent offshoot of Microsoft's older product-search site, offers a different, potentially lucrative wrinkle, only showing stores that offer rebates on purchases made through this site.

* For the Philips DVDR3576 DVD recorder -- one of the only such models that can also record TV broadcasts on an internal hard drive -- Google, PriceGrabber and Yahoo generally agreed that the lowest available price was $300. But while Google found only two retailers offering this device, Yahoo located seven and PriceGrabber identified six (though the seemingly obvious choice of Amazon was not among them). Live Search Cashback couldn't find any deals for this model.

* In a query for Samsung's LN40A650, a 40-inch LCD HDTV, PriceGrabber located 20 retailers, with their lowest bottom-line price $1,378. Live Search Cashback found only 12 stores but beat that price, at $1,350 after rebate. Yahoo identified 12 stores, but its low price of $1,286 didn't reflect a $100 shipping charge listed on that merchant's own site. Google's confused results lumped in unrelated TV accessories, and the $1,242 figure at the low end of its results came from a store with mediocre ratings from buyers and a $99 shipping charge.

* Finally, I looked for an Apple iPod nano 8 GB player in black, expecting to see identical numbers all around -- Apple enforces its prices far more strictly than most companies. But I found some actual discounts and some dubious deals. PriceGrabber (21 stores found) and Yahoo (seven stores located) each beat Apple's $199 list price by $10 and change, but Yahoo's lowest price of $188 came from Amazon, while PriceGrabber's best price of $185 came at a store I'd never heard of. (Yahoo also listed a $159 price for a refurbished model that should not have shown up at all after I'd set the site to display only new models, not used products.) LiveSearch Cashback pointed me to an even lower price of $162, but a click through revealed that this iPod was in "like new" condition; the other 11 deals Cashback suggested were in the same ballpark as Yahoo and PriceGrabber's results. Google delivered the sketchiest results of all. The $125 price at Buy.com it turned up came from a third party renting virtual space at that store -- a wholesaler with only two buyer ratings, both strongly negative.

After running this little experiment, I think I'm as confused as ever about which search site to use. PriceGrabber offers the best presentation, but I can't rely on a site that doesn't cover Amazon's prices. Yahoo gets all the name-brand retailers but often suffers from a confusing presentation. I like Cashback's enlightened bribery, but I'm not sure about some of the companies participating in it. And Google's product search may cover more companies than most, but in some ways it's far too comprehensive.

Which price search engines should I be using? Enlighten me in the comments.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  July 18, 2008; 11:26 AM ET
Categories:  The Web  
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