Internet Retailing reports that consumers are catching wind that comparison engines' CPC model can be biased towards higher paying merchants. A study by Quidco in the UK found that one in three consumers have stopped using shopping engines, and almost 50% would not use comparison engines again after being told that results may be skewed in favor of the highest bidder. Although the findings are interesting, we shouldn't conclude that this is the beginning of the end for comparison engines.
The problem is perception. Consumers may be less likely to use comparison engines if they feel that they are somehow being manipulated. Since people want to feel in control and that they have made the best decision - they want to believe they are choosing from all the information available. But the consumers in the study don't fully understand comparison shopping, nor do they realize that so much of their buying behavior is influenced by paid advertising already.
For example, when we go to the grocery store, we encounter paid advertising placement. Eye-level items pay a premium for their prime shelf real estate as do impulse-buy checkout display items. Television ads cost far more during the day than in the wee hours of the night, and during popular shows on the top networks.
The User IS In Control
Comparison shopping engines enable sorting of results - low to high and high to low, and sometimes even more options for sorting / refining of results. If there are ones that don't, they seriously need to reexamine their site usability. If the convenience and utility of comparison engines cannot compete with the consumer's annoyance with feeling somehow manipulated, over-marketed to or in some way not having control over their purchase decision, the industry needs to work on making consumers aware of their ability to use the decision-making tools available to them.
In terms of reinforcing awareness, individual shopping engines need to make it very easy to find price or seller rating sorting functionality. Nextag is an example. There is a table of default seller listings when you navigate to a product. You can in fact sort by price or seller rating if you wish by clicking the underlined text links, but most users don't intuitively know this unless they're really ninja with Excel spreadsheets or otherwise understand how it's supposed to work.
After price sort
For this reason I believe conventional drop-down menus (like the following Bizrate screenshot) are more user-friendly.
It's Not The End!
So if you're using comparison engines as an additional sales channel, don't be scared of this survey. Unless, of course, shopping engines are your only Internet marketing strategy. Consumers wary of comparison engines will likely turn back to traditional engines like Google and Yahoo, so search engine optimization remains highly important, as is using a search engine friendly ecommerce software. Other strategies to promote include affiliate programs, deals and coupon engines and social shopping sites, mobile phone shopping engines like Slifter and innovative and fun web shopping sites.
Is comparison shopping in danger of losing consumer trust? I doubt it. Comparison shopping is just too useful to go away. Add to the traditional shopping portals the hip-and-cool Like.com, Etsy and Shopwiki that have the intelligence to match keywords to colors, and even celebrity styles to products. (After all, there's more to the purchase discovery process than comparing price and seller rating.) The user experience is only going to get better and better.
Not all comparison engines work on pure CPC model. Ecommerce Optimization has compiled a fabulous and thorough list of comparison engines and makes note of which operate on which model.