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Google’s “Value Alert” Test Is a Mess

Most of us shop online, and that means most of us do at least some of our shopping through Google. Google makes it easy to find the product you’re looking for, and typically shows results from multiple vendors in a sidebar. But what if the search engine did more—what if they actively helped you save money?

That seems to be the idea behind Google’s newest experimental feature, the value alert. As reported by Search Engine Land’s Ginny Marvin, the feature puts a highly visible “value alert” tag next to the product listing that they believe will save you the most money. Cool.

A lot of ink could be spilled about the motivation for the change—whether it makes shoppers’ lives easier, whether it changes the nature of Google results, and whether the value alert tag might become a service that vendors have to pay for (currently it’s free). But for my money, the most interesting thing about Google’s value alert is how bad it is.

What Kind of Value?

As an example of the new feature Ginny uses a search for skin care products. The value alert goes to a listing from DermStore. But there are two fatal flaws here:

  1. DermStore does not actually have the lowest price for the product listed. Other Google listings right beside it show lower prices—something Google can easily pick up. Thus, how exactly it determines the best “value” is a mystery. Ginny hypothesizes that it’s whichever product has the biggest discount. But at the end of the day, a $25 product costs less than a product marked down to $55. For most people good value means lowest price, period.
  2. The product in question does not seem to exist. Ginny says that clicking through reveals no trace of the product that won the value alert—the vendor doesn’t even seem to sell it. I find this to be sadly common when shopping online; vendors advertise a specific product but when you click through you only get the category listing, which may or may not have the item you wanted. If Google can’t recognize phantom listings, it’s probably not ready to gauge who offers the best deal.

It’s not that this is a bad idea, but Google has a long way to go to make it work well. (In fairness, they’re just testing it at the moment, it’s not a fully rolled out feature.) I think there is a big difference between “best price” on a specific item versus “biggest discount” on items in a certain category, and the closer they can stick to best price the better the service will be.