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Economising On E-browsing – Google’s Digitised Storefronts

Monday, Nov 29, 2010, 10:09 AM



Google is at it again – the launch of Boutiques.com, Google Inc.’s (GOOG) emerging fashion platform, marks its latest commercial venture into the online landscape. This follows its fresh acquisition of Like.com, a visually enhanced product search engine based on image recognition software. Bolstered from the recent procurement, Boutiques.com is laying the groundwork for virtual storefronts merchandised by global users according to their sartorial inclinations.

Architecting the façade to your independent digital shop is a simple process. You are first directed to respond to a series of thirty questions designed to analyse your style preferences, and thereafter prompted to create an account and continue sign-up. You control visual sub-sets that encompass colour, patterns, and silhouettes, and are also able to select your favorite items from participating retailers. The depths of assortments and extensive designer index include industry aces such as Camilla Skovgaard, Ann Demeulemeester, Day Birger et Mikkelsen, and Sonia Rykiel. Based on what Google touts as its ‘computerised learning algorithms’, it assists users with stocking shops by capturing all relevant settings and tailoring recommendations based on product matches appearing throughout the site.

As a business model, the concept materialises on the social shopping experience. You are able to share, comment, and follow others, which creates a medium for real-time feedback and active participation. Given word-of-mouth recommendations often carry greater weight, this could ultimately lead to more efficient decision-making and increased CPC (cost per click) – i.e., Google’s profitable advantage. The second tier in this model is Google’s starting line-up of boutiques curated by ‘Alpha consumers’ such as celebrities, stylists, designers, and fashion bloggers. Alpha, which symbolises A in the Greek alphabet, implies a first position; therefore, any consumers belonging in this grouping – as coined by economist Michael Wolf – are seen as influencers, the first to pick up on emerging trends and set the pace for what will be released into the market. In his 2003 book The Entertainment Economy, Wolf states, “Theirs is the key role of connecting with the concept behind a product, then adopting that product, and finally validating it for the rest of society. If hits are like explosions, alphas are at the epicenter.” In that case, consider the Internet the clean strike of a match fusing the masses, unconfined to any geographical limitations. It’s all based on live perceptions and up-to-the-minute updates just like you’ll find with the other social networks, Facebook and Twitter.

From a technological perspective, the software is an adaptation from the now defunct photo search engine Riya, whose visual computing research was later pioneered for Like.com. The technology enabled product libraries of merchant sites to be crawled, returning all results with a matching look or visual signature. The ‘likeness’ algorithm determines the order of results based on shape, color and pattern; therefore, it is not reliant on proper tagging, and the associated metadata is mainly used to fine-tune results. That said, one has to ponder the accuracy. For instance, The ‘Visually Similar Items’ set is anything but, the same goes for the ‘Inspired by’ and ‘Ways to Wear’ sections which return the most arbitrary selections. A vest is visually similar to a blazer? I don’t think so. The downfall also extends to the seemingly endless maze of similar storefronts limited by a small sampling of photos focused primarily on runway looks. This detracts from the likelihood of following a store, as you can’t identify a clear vision from the beginning. They may have been better utilising layout options similar to Polyvore’s, which is more creative and allows users to compose storyboards integrating a vast array of products collected from retailers worldwide.

As a one-stop search engine that allows you to drill down results with advanced search filters, Google accomplishes what it does best. Precise product categorisations streamline the comparison-shopping process, simultaneously displaying all available sizes, free-shipping deals, and sale offers. With the iPad version (downloadable for free via the iTunes store), you can also browse wirelessly on the go – made all the better as the entire platform is Google Ads-free. The launch too brings with it benefits to e-retailers through increased traffic, web reach, and alternative revenue sources – particularly for those companies with lesser market penetration.

The looming question that presents itself is whether this venture will truly prove to be lucrative for all parties involved or just a short-handed web-listing platform. It possesses its strengths as a search engine, but will the underlying concept flourish, attract users, and more importantly, maintain them? Given its incubation phase, it is currently only targeted to females and the currency exchange is limited to the United States. Skeptics may infer that this is the next chapter in data mining and statistics. Whether that’s ethically viable is open for debate; with the upward surge in adapting social media mechanisms, it’s becoming an accessible practice among businesses. At the moment, Google does not solicit demographic information and only collects information relevant to visual preferences.

Shawden Sheabar | TribaSpace

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Product Groups: Ready-to-Wear, Media, Promotion, Casual Wear
Markets: Women's

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