The UBIO Blog

Industry Insight
July 31, 2020
7 min

A Brief History of Aggregators Part 3: Product comparison, today, and the future

Last time in the second part of our History of Aggregators we left aggregator pre-history and looked at the the rise of mail order. We also welcomed the internet age and traced the origin of online selling. We toured the internet’s favourite megastore and looked at how affiliate schemes monetised the aggregator model.

In this final part in our story we’ll look at how comparison websites settled into the public consciousness and became the destination for getting the best deals. We will also take a pause to look at where we are today and where aggregated buying will be heading in the future. Spoiler: it’s pretty exciting.

Shopping Comparison

Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

The mid 1990s saw the first shopping comparison sites. There was BargainFinder, Netbot, Junglee, which Amazon bought, NexTag, Kelkoo and a grab-bag of other aggregated product search engines, mainly modelled on top of affiliate marketing schemes. A little later Google made their own attempts in the area too with Froogle which later morphed into Google shopping which served paid search ads for products in an ecommerce-like experience.

These were all made in the spirit of consolidating the user experience for shopping, presenting users with a single destination, be that based on best price, customer reviews, product vertical or even a broad, meta-level horizontal product search experience.

The effect of aggregation, however, was stifled somewhat by only partial consolidation. It was one thing to provide the product search and discovery, but the entire purchasing experience was generally broken when the shopper needed to jump out of the shopping comparison engine on to the retailer website to buy. This was the era of beautiful, curated boutiques, offering personalised product combinations and slickly designed shopping apps which built loyal followers, but struggled to convert users when they had to wrestle with a different payment form on each underlying retailer website.

The author knows well the challenges in this area. UBIO started its life as ‘UB,’ building a Universal Basket (hence the name) for exactly these services. Not only would shopping comparison apps own delightful product discovery but could act just like pureplay retailer and check everything out without leaping off-app to do so.

We believe this is still a viable model for the right retail shopping comparison engine, and an honourable mention ought to go to the likes of Lyst and Honey for investing in their integrated shopping baskets. Though maybe something more general, which approaches this idea is on its way from one of the usual suspects?

Price Comparison Websites & Travel Metasearch

Photo by Benjamin Suter from Pexels

The utility and travel oriented siblings of shopping comparison have embedded more successfully into public buying habits. Still driven by an affiliate model the PCWs and Metasearch players have found firmer ground comparing prices for intangible products like insurance, energy tariffs or flight booking.

Financial and utility price comparison became viable with the deregulation of those markets in the 1980s. The most mature market for such services is the UK where financial products became the target for comparison selling following market deregulation. Simon Nixon, the founder of Mortgage 2000, a price comparison service for brokers morphed the company into in 1993. This was a consumer offering with aggregated comparison of insurance, loans and credit cards as well as mortgages. Utility switching comparison also followed market deregulation. Insurance renewal notices in the UK are legally obliged to carry wording encouraging consumers to compare other offers and the practice of online comparison and switching is deeply embedded in how these products are now sold, at least in the United Kingdom.

The term ‘metasearch’, meaning searching the search engines, originated in the mid 1990s. MetaCrawler was the first, developed in 1994, and it returned aggregated results from Google, Yahoo!, Bing and others. Search has typically been dominated by singular players and so the term is more regularly applied today to travel service aggregators who present a comparison of flight or hotel inventory from multiple sources. The 2000s saw the introduction of services like TripAdvisor, Skyscanner, KAYAK and Trivago who sit on top of traditional travel agents and the underlying provider websites to offer the most competitive prices.

Hyper aggregation suits the mature financial and travel online product verticals perfectly. These services often still suffer a lack of coherence beyond discovery in the actual purchase process, passing buyers off to the underlying seller. But customers expect broad market comprehension, and so aggregation is key to price comparison.


Photo by Prateek Katyal from Pexels

History tells us that customers have demanded consolidated experiences since antiquity. It still blows my mind to think I could have mail ordered a house from the Sears catalogue in 1940, but that proves that the benefits of product aggregation are deeply rooted. Demand is ever present. Though brick and mortar remains, inevitably much of the current drive for product aggregation is happening online.

The inheritors of this history are still innovating. Who might finally nail the comparison shopping app? Some might say Amazon are already doing it, but true aggregation will surely breach the walls of even their biggest fulfilment centre and bring everything together. With the right technology to ensure the end-to-end experience is covered, who do you think might be in with a chance?

In travel, as in financial services, customer behaviour is embedded. Nobody expects to ring round hotels for a room or insurance companies for cover. We expect frictionless choices on our phones and, ideally, the best prices too.

I co-founded UBIO. Our automation already connects otherwise unconnected parts of the internet together so real consolidated buying experiences can come to life. Our clients include Google in the travel space. Their hotel booking experience is getting to the point where anything is bookable where you search. We do similar things for Trivago and for KAYAK with flights. The chances are your next broadband purchase might be fulfilled by one of our robots too. Helping aggregators bring everything together is what we do.

The Future

Photo by Akwice from Pexels

I’m not sure if, strictly speaking, the future is part of history, but this story doesn’t end today and I believe it is well worth taking a look up the road. You are more than welcome to come back to me later and say “well, that never happened did it?” but we speak rather a lot about the future at UBIO. It’s a growing area of technology and our lives. So, with all our knowledge of the past, here are a handful of predictions for the future.

Firstly it’s probable that there will be a significant amount of consolidation around the bigger players in the aggregation space. As long as a sweet spot of presenting the right mix of products and services is achieved the large online retailers and the search industry will most likely achieve even broader customer loyalty than they enjoy today. We think they’ll grow strongly as a result. While there will still be a space for the little guys to offer great niche offerings the big companies are likely to take advantage of bringing broad, mainstream buying experiences to consumers, and winning mind share because of it.

Most of the above will be the result of harnessing a better, much more seamless user experience. Much has been touted about assistants. We think these technologies will grow significantly, and not just in the voice space. Voice itself, while undoubtedly interesting, will probably only be a tiny component of it. It’s likely there will be a unified assistant layer that you connect with wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. That might be on your phone, through that voice assistant in your living room, on your home entertainment system, or via a seamless switch to the console in your car. Probably even on the plane. It will know your work habits as well as your family and social preferences. It will be there for you, wherever you are and through whatever interface, device or technology you are near. It will predict what you need before you know you need it. Expect an ever-present helping hand, everywhere, eager with just the right prompt or recommendation for what you need to know, what you can do and what services will allow you to achieve it.

With all of this will come deep integration of the aggregated product experience. In order for this ubiquitous assistant to be there for your every need it will require access to all corners of the internet and commerce. This will be the next incarnation of the handy Agora or souk. It will be very much more than any mail order catalogue, mall, travel agent or online store. It will know you very well, for certain, and it will have a connection to all the services offered by every seller across the expanse of the commercial internet. We’re talking pure and total interoperability. Connecting any and all of these services, everywhere and anywhere to you via your assistant, we predict, will be the next chapter in the History of Aggregators.

Thank you.

I hope you enjoyed this magical history tour of aggregators. From the agora and souks, via the Sears catalogue and our friends at Amazon it has been an interesting journey.

Get in touchAbout UBIO