AnswerOil: Lubricate your gadget purchases

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I’ve rarely thought about how to make online shopping better. I’ve kind of just gone to a website, done a few searches, and bought what looked like a good fit. Sadly, this doesn’t work for complex devices like cameras and laptops — anything with more than one or two identifying characteristics — and, as a result customers often have to go to brick and mortar stores to look at devices before we seal the deal online.

AnswerOil is an attempt to improve this process considerably by by offering a slider-based search system. What does that mean? You begin by selecting a category — cameras, laptops, milking machines — and then choosing a pre-set number of characteristics — megapixels, processors, memory, teat connections — or selecting less popular characteristics like color or size. You then prioritize and “weight” these characteristics according to importance. All of the changes are performed dynamically, allowing perfect matches to bubble to the top and less interesting devices to fall in ranking. There is a complete demo here which really shows the sliders in action.

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The consumer will find the process quite intuitive. By choosing a few preset characteristics, you can browse through a wealth of devices until you find just the right one. The AnswerOil folks have found that people who use the service and have just purchased a camera or laptop by research alone usually end up finding exactly the device they recently bought using the sliders.

For online stores the service is even more interesting. By knowing exactly what customers were looking for (“a red laptop with 2.0-GHz processor with a 17-inch screen”) they can later cross reference the information and target that demographic or particular customer.

AnswerOil also has an excellent database of product information out of sheer necessity. If any of the characteristics are wrong or incorrectly coded, the entire sort becomes a mess. Hanging a reviews engine off of this would be trivial, which is what they are trying to to, a gadget social network that was far less compelling than the actual shopping service.

The Flash interface is quite smooth and the sliders control the product sort immediately, displaying a cascade of items that finally settles in on the final sort. The company is working with clients in the U.K. and central europe to roll out the search in some of the largest European ecommerce sites but have yet to make much headway in the U.S. As a whole, however, I think this is one search system worth looking at, even as an overlay to the traditional search systems. I’ve seen things like this at Dell and HP but nothing so complete nor as quick.