Flow, a Canadian start-up offering an innovative, peer-to-peer ‘social commerce’ solution, has just teamed up with Hakia to provide semantic search functionality within its closed platform. While the news is unlikely to draw too much attention now, it could well have massive implications on the way people do their shopping online in the future.
Internet commerce as we know it has remained largely unchanged for the best part of a decade, ever since the emergence of behemoths like Amazon and eBay. At the time of their arrival, these platforms revolutionized commerce, providing one-stop shops for just about any product a consumer could fathom, and often providing them at significant discounts.
But for all their success, Amazon, eBay and its legion of copycat sites are far from perfect. For one thing, these websites have grown so large that searching for a specific product has become an incredibly laborious task – and even if you do manage to find what you’re looking for, chances are that what you stumble across is never going to be the most practical option. Who hasn’t bought some item online, only to find out that it has to be shipped all the way from China, when in all likelihood digging deeper would reveal that someone just the other side of town also has the exact same item for sale?
eCommerce as we know it is pretty entrenched, but social commerce is slowly emerging to challenge the status quo. It’s a concept that’s evolved from what are probably the two biggest phenomena on the web – online shopping and social media. And it’s a natural evolution too, as it only makes sense for marketers to connect with their customers to better understand their needs and position themselves as the ones to provide it.
Social commerce isn’t all that different from regular eCommerce, except that in the case of the former, the ‘shopping’ will often take place within a closed eco-system – a walled garden – which allows the service provider to maintain full control of the marketplace, unlike with eBay for example, where there is little control over who gets to sell what. Facebook is probably the best known example of social commerce – the world’s biggest social media site has been offering its own dose of online retail therapy for several years now, and this takes place within its own ‘walled garden’.
It’s understandable why Facebook would choose to do this. After all, it wants to keep all these interactions within its own domain, but unfortunately its experiment has had mixed results at best – few people go to Facebook when they wish to buy something online, other than the odd consumer that may have noticed an ad for the specific product they’re looking for.
The reason no one uses Facebook to shop is simple. Their search functionality sucks big time – to be quite honest, it simply doesn’t have one. Go ahead and try, search for a specific product you’d like to buy and see what results come up. As shopping venues go, Facebook leaves a lot to be desired.
Flow is hoping to avoid these mistakes. Rather than jump in headfirst before all of the systems to make it work are in place, it’s taken its time to create all of the tools, the security, and the search functions that it needs to power its marketplace, before it sets up its shop. Above all else, the semantic search powered by Hakia will be central to its success.
Although some may have misgivings, a walled garden community like Flow’s will actually bring many positive benefits. Marketers will benefit from less competition, local positioning, better relationships with customers, and consequently, more customer retention. For consumers, walled gardens mean that they can cut out the middleman, and they’ll be able to find what they’re looking for much more easily as Flow’s semantic search results will eradicate much of the spam.
William Cockburn, Executive Director of Flow, emphasized the power of semantic search and how it will produce results that are far more valid for consumers:
“We believe that semantic search will facilitate the next evolution in data delivery, namely, a powerful engine to deliver relevance, context, interpretive cultural lexicon and imagery targeted by a user’s request,” explains Cockburn.
“We believe this is a fundamental practical requirement for people to find answers in a global marketplace… the who, what, where, why and when from their search.”
Inevitably there will be some naysayers that insist it’s wrong to do business this way, in a closed eco-system. They might argue that it limits consumer’s choices, or that it’s somehow unethical to limit search results in this way, but their points are invalid. At the end of the day, consumers will still have a choice, and if they want a convenient solution that cuts out all of the ‘noise’ and spam and saves their valuable time, then many will want to choose Flow. At the end of the day, walled garden or no, every eCommerce portal needs to offer search functionality – the choice consumers will need to make is deciding which system suits them best.