It’s been very interesting to watch the transition of buying guides from print to online. Print buying guides were a pretty good business, although in fact few of them were very good products. That’s because most buying guides were what I call shallow information products: they would typically list a product and the names and addresses of companies that (hopefully) made or sold the product. After that, users were on their own. This stripped-down format was in part practical, because even this limited information was hard to obtain. It was in part by design, because it encouraged companies to buy advertising next to their listings to provide additional information. There’s no room on the web for shallow information products anymore. Search engines have gotten good enough that you can find at least a few manufacturers or sellers of just about anything with very little effort. And company websites now typically contain a wealth of product information, in part because it is so cheap and efficient to do so. Overall, this leaves little room for buying guides to add value, at least in their traditional format.

So is the buying guide model dead? If you are talking about the traditional shallow information model, the answer is yes (something that the big yellow page publishers, incredibly, have still not figured out). But what is emerging in its place are a number of exciting new products that mix and match such features as:

  • User ratings and reviews (and some now validate users and even confirm that they have purchased the product they are reviewing)
  • Links to third-party professional reviews
  • Downloadable CAD drawings
  • Photo portfolios showing product applications and/or the product in use
  • Strong parametric search
  • Side-by-side comparison of selected products
  • Guided search where instead of traditional searches, users answer a questionnaire instead
  • Shared online areas where users can post products for review by co-workers
  • Ability to request product samples from the manufacturer
  • Integrated ordering capabilities
  • Warehousing and shipping of product on behalf of manufacturers
  • Product specification data, warranty data, installation instructions, manuals
  • Real-time inventory information
  • Real-time pricing information

In short, the list is long. And what results is a true destination purchasing research site and, increasingly, a central marketplace. Find exactly what you need and order it. That’s been the holy grail of buying guides for decades, and it’s finally becoming a reality.

The other piece of the puzzle is advertising. Because publishers are now building these true destination sites, they can also develop substantial traffic simply because they are offering utility and value. And advertisers respect these highly qualified or often quite large audiences because they are truly “in the market,” and what advertiser doesn’t want visibility when the buying decision is being made. It is, as we like to say, “data that does stuff.”

So while the approach is different, what we see with buying guides is exactly the same as what we see with other forms of data, and exemplifies infocommerce: creating a high value proposition with better, deeper data and tools to act on it.