Google Revamping Catalog Search Section

After possibly the longest beta test in Internet history, Google is apparently in the midst of a major overhaul of Google Catalog Search.

Launched four years ago, the service features thousands of scanned catalog pages from more than 1,500 merchants. From a visit to the site, however, it appears that Google Catalog Search hasn’t been touched in at least a year, possibly two.

An e-mail inquiry earlier this week to Google customer service asking about Catalog Search was answered by an auto-response that said in part: “We’re aware that Google Catalogs hasn’t been updated recently, so your most recent catalog may not appear on our site. We encourage you to send us a copy of each new catalog as it becomes available. Our engineering team is working to restructure our system, and we hope to have the backlog of catalogs posted on our site in the upcoming months.”

In late 2001, Google began quietly scanning thousands of catalog pages and posting them on Google Catalog Search, as the economy reeled from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Internet companies were especially desperate for new revenue streams. The service was fairly rudimentary when it launched then and remains so today. Clicking on category links, such as “home and garden,” results in Web pages of thumbnail images of catalog covers. Clicking on the covers results in Web pages of thumbnail images of the books’ pages indexed by page number.

Google Catalog Search allows consumers to zoom in on pages but does not allow customers to place orders. Instead, the pages display the catalogers’ telephone numbers, links to their Websites, and the source codes of the books from which the scans were made. While publishing the source codes was ostensibly intended for order-tracking purposes, it isn’t clear how the sales from Catalog Search could be tracked to Google.

Google’s initial plan for Catalog Search was to test the service and then figure out a way to charge merchants for it. The world’s largest search engine reportedly introduced the service without asking permission from the catalogers it featured, but it intended to comply with removal requests.

While Google Catalog Search’s value to consumers and merchants as a sales channel may be questionable in its current form, some direct marketing professionals have found it helpful for monitoring what catalogers were mailing.

“I used to use it regularly as a type of ‘who’s mailing what’ service,” says Lisa Moore, vice president, business development for Harrison, NY-based cooperative database i-Behavior.

The idea of an online destination for catalogers was not new when Google entered the market. List services company Direct Media in 1996 introduced CatalogLink, a site devoted to driving catalog requests and Website traffic for clients. Catalog City, now known as Shop.com, and the now-defunct CatalogFinder debuted at the 15th Annual Catalog Conference in 1998.

For the time being, Google Catalog Search is a ghost town. The most recent catalogs on the service seem to be from 2004 and some are three years old.

An e-mail sent earlier this week to Google’s press hotline asking about the status of Google Catalog Search was not answered as of yesterday afternoon.

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