Social Network Goes Shopping

Shopping has always been a social experience in the real world. IAC's (Nasdaq: IACI  ) Pronto.com is now hoping that it can work in the virtual world, too. The comparison shopping site is introducing a few Web 2.0 tweaks, banking on a community-driven experience that differs from more conventional rivals, which simply spit out the lowest prices on certain items.

Visitors can now rate products, brands, and retailers. Users can submit items they like, add reviews, and even forge online friendships revolving around similar tastes. It's as close as you can get to a social network for the plastic-swiping crowd.

A lot of these features don't seem new. Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) has been collecting reviews for years, encouraging patrons to posts lists of favorite items and participate in message boards. The difference here is that Pronto is not an actual online retailer. As a comparison-shopping site, it's merchant-agnostic. It ultimately pits sellers against each other when showing results (even if it highlights featured stores first, unless you click to adjust by price).

It's a smart move, leading one to wonder how long it will take for rivals to catch up. There are always fears that companies can game favorable reviews, especially on fresh Web 2.0 sites like Pronto, waiting to be populated with content. (It's easier to move the needle amid such uncharted territory.) Still, Pronto would be nuts not to engage its audience on a deeper level.

Comparison-shopping sites are everywhere these days. Scripps' (NYSE: SSP  ) Shopzilla, CNET's (Nasdaq: CNET  ) MySimon, and Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) Product Search (formerly Froogle) are just a few of the many sites wooing penny-pinching shoppers by presenting the best deals on indexed products.

Even before Pronto's social networking makeover, it was a juggernaut in its niche, attracting 3.1 million unique monthly visitors. Its database covers 70 million products from roughly 65,000 online merchants.

The beauty of Web 2.0 makeovers is that they improve over time. Pronto's dedicating a lot of its landing-page space today to promote the new features, but the add-ons will feel even more useful once the community grows even larger. More multi-merchant products will be rated. Likes and dislikes can then be weighted by the most popular users. It can only get better, but you've got to start somewhere.

You know, like convincing people that shopping is a social experience in cyberspace, too.

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