In an effort to capture some of the e-tail success that Amazon.com has enjoyed thanks to Web services, Canadian Web portal Canoe.ca has implemented an e-commerce Web service from Blanketware Corp. that presents visitors with real-time product information from multiple online merchants.
Unlike Amazon, Canoe, which has 8 million monthly visitors, began its Web services project with limited e-commerce functionality. Instead of offering its own goods, it wanted to use Web services to enable users to search for products offered by e-commerce partners like eBay, Canadian Tire and Sport Chek.
"A lot of our competitors also have shopping sites, which are primarily indexes to other locales with a little bit of product integration," said Jose Leal, Canoe's general manager. "But for us to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace, we felt we needed to go beyond that."
Another reason Canoe ruled out traditional database integration was because, if the company had chosen that route, it would not have had the ability to cull accurate product information. Not only do each of its partners label and store product data differently, but it also would be difficult to harness up-to-date information.
"The traditional approach of taking all the data and ramming it into a database via uploads or aggregation wasn't practical because eBay's data is changing every minute," said Mark Walker, chief executive of Toronto-based Blanketware.
So instead of constantly updating a huge new database just to store information on its partners' products, Canoe chose to implement Blanketware's Web service and let XML messages request and provide product information on a query-by-query basis.
To use the Web service, which looks and feels similar to the search engine format Amazon employs, a Canoe visitor types a product name into a text field. The information is then passed via an HTTP query string to a local Blanketware Diatra processing engine.
There the request is morphed into XML in the form of a Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) message, which is then sent to partner sites as a detailed query. The information is gathered and returned as XML and can be displayed to a Canoe user in a number of formats.
To bridge the gap, Blanketware used an emulation server as a translator between Canoe's Web service and sites like eBay. Following a user query, the emulation server takes the SOAP message created by the Web service and turns it into information requests that the partner sites' systems can understand.
"Since these [partner] sites don't have SOAP gateways," said Walker, "we're able to use the same engine for Web services to turn these sites into Web services for our benefit." Essentially, the engine fools the sites into thinking the queries come from their own visitors rather than a Web service.
An added bonus to Blanketware's Web service is its ability to handle advanced syntax. For example, instead of searching for the word "toaster," a user can search for "toasters between $20 and $50," and Blanketware's Diatra engine uses semantic content analysis to understand the narrowed search parameters and add them to the XML query it creates.
The Web service has been in place since July, and Walker said the entire project took about five months to complete. However, it is only used in two sections of Canoe's site: sports, and home and garden. Leal said his company didn't want to risk implementing it across the board without knowing how well it would work, but plans to expand the Web service are now in the works.
Though Blanketware's software license prices start at $100,000, Leal declined to put a price tag on the implementation. He said that in the long run it might pay for itself by enabling Canoe to move to a cost-per-click advertising structure as opposed to its current flat-fee model.
Walker said a Microsoft platform like Canoe's is not required but is recommended because Blanketware's Diatra technology works most efficiently with the data-parsing abilities of Microsoft's Internet Information Server.