Free Web Directories Is There a Catch?

Maybe there’s no such thing as a free lunch — but how about a free listing in an online catalog directory? Search engine giant Google and online superstore Amazon.com are each beta-testing online catalog directories that are free to marketers and Web surfers alike.

Google Catalog Search, which launched beta in December, lists about 3,800 catalogs. Mountain View, CA-based Google collects print catalogs, then scans and converts them into a database that users can search online. Users type a word in the search box and then receive a list of catalog pages on which the searched word appears.

Amazon’s catalog directory went live in May. The company encourages catalogers to send in their catalogs, “and we’ll put on them up on the site,” says Carrie Peters, spokesperson for Seattle-based Amazon. Users access it by clicking the “See More Stores” tab on the home page. Amazon’s service has the same “look inside the book” function that the site uses to sell books, enabling visitors to view pages of the catalogs.

Both Google and Amazon are waiting before making their next move. “We’re still trying to figure out the best way to enhance and improve the service for our users and for catalog vendors,” says Google spokesperson Eileen Rodriguez. “For right now, we’re just trying to make this portion of our search as comprehensive as we can.”

Similarly, Peters says, “At this point it is still a test, so it is hard to speculate on the future. We feel that the value for customers to go to our site and look through catalogs and spend time on our site brings value to Amazon.com.”

Given that the services are free, it’s tough to carp about their shortcomings. But Alan Rimm-Kaufman, Ph.D., vice president of marketing for Charlottesville, VA-based consumer electronics cataloger Crutchfield, expresses concern about what he calls the “half-baked” nature of the offerings.

“I think Google did this without asking anybody, so that’s kind of a curious situation,” Rimm-Kaufman says.

Indeed, Rodriguez says Google did not make arrangements with catalogers to feature their books. “If some catalog vendors are not interested in being featured on this specific service,” she says, “they can simply contact our team here and have their information removed.”

Rimm-Kaufman does feel that Google Catalog Search has “potential. If Google brought us something that brings us profitable sales, we’d be certainly glad to test it, so we’ll see how it goes.” Crutchfield has a longstanding advertising arrangement with Google.

Lelia Stoddard, marketing manager for Los Angeles-based children’s products cataloger Babystyle, is also intrigued by Google Catalog Search’s potential, although she is disappointed that there is no easy way to track the site visits or sales resulting from the site: “It’s hard to say how valuable it is without tracking the numbers.”

‘Warm-puppy syndrome’?

Robin Lebo, president of Charlottesville, VA-based consultancy Lebo Direct, believes that Google and Amazon may pursue their search services as revenue-sharing deals. Catalogs featured on the sites could carry an implied endorsement of the two online giants, which may eventually charge mailers for the service.

“It’s the ‘warm-puppy syndrome,’” Lebo says. “If you hand someone a warm puppy, he doesn’t want to give it back. If you put up this service for free, maybe catalogers will get used to it if they see any traffic” and then be willing to pay for it rather than give it up.

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