Ciao, the reviews and price comparison site bought by Microsoft in 2008 for USD468m, is one of the most popular such portals in Europe, competing against the likes of Kelkoo. Currently integrated with Microsoft's Bing search engine, its head of UK e-commerce sales, Vincenzo Calenne, discusses revenues, sales rumours and how Ciao was affected by updates to Google's search algorithm.
- How popular is Ciao?
In Europe, it is the number one shopping platform; it's number one in the Spanish, German and Italian markets; third in the Netherlands; and fifth in Sweden and the UK.
- What is your popularity like in the US?
We don't have a US presence; we're only working in Europe. We used to have, maybe five years ago, but when Microsoft bought the company, they eventually decided to close down Ciao.com and open Bing Shopping. We are part of Bing in Europe, and do not power Bing shopping in the US. We're separate.
- Is it profitable?
Of course we are a profitable company, but we don't show those numbers. Ciao is obviously a price comparison website, so we compare prices, the cheapest prices, but the difference with our competitors, our advantage against our competitors is that we have a community of people writing reviews. It's a community. The others do compare prices - if you go on Shopzilla you can compare prices - but you can't understand whether a product is good or not. You have to know yourself if it's good.
- What are your biggest challenges?
Right now, Ciao is really big. [But] we have been trying for years to [get] across to people that Ciao is the most organized platform where you can find user-generated content. If you want to buy a car yourself, for example, you Google a Fiat Panda for a review, you are likely to find Ciao there. The biggest challenge is making people understand that everything's already in Ciao, all the reviews are in Ciao.
- What are the biggest shifts in consumer behaviour that you've seen within this space?
When I started working at Ciao in 2004, reviews were important, but not too important. Now they're becoming even more [important]. A survey we conducted on the Ciao community [showed] that 68% of people would actually change their purchase decision based on consumer reviews. This means that users are, first of all, reading these reviews and looking for these kinds of reviews, and that they change their mind.
- What is your strategy for the next year?
The shopping arena is changing, it has to change. I don't know if you're aware of [Google's] Panda updates, but it's something that really affected the whole shopping industry - not just Ciao, but other websites. It will get tougher, as there will be less traffic for shopping websites like us. It will be more like a fight for survival, because obviously less traffic means you [make] less revenue and deliver less traffic to merchants. So I feel it will be a very interesting year.
- Is it a problem that shopping sites are so reliant on Google?
Yes, I think so. When the traffic isn't there, people aren't there.
- Did you have to restructure the site because of the Panda updates? Actually, no. In terms of traffic, we've been growing since 2006 - so six years already - just growing and growing, steadily, every year, in all countries. This is the first time that we've actually gone back - there's been this kind of drop.
- Then again, this happens - it's happened to our competitors in the past. In 2006, Kelkoo was our main competitor, and they lost maybe 60% of traffic in one month. Obviously we all depend on a big search engine, which is Google, but we're lucky that we have Bing, which is the opponent, still with a small market share, but we hope for the best.
- Has it affected revenues?
Of course. The more people we have on the website, the more revenue we are likely to generate. As a part of the Microsoft family, we have a giant supporting us, so we're very strong. It's just a matter of time. Microsoft has the power to stay in the market for many years and eventually win the battle.
- There are rumours Microsoft is planning to sell Ciao?
Not as far as I know - I read that as well. It might happen, it might not. I don't know.
- Do you plan further changes?
Right now, the integration with Bing is very basic. You click on ‘Shopping' and you go to Ciao, or, let's say, you're looking on Bing for a camera, a Nikon camera for example, and you go to Bing, and the first result is Bing Shopping. In future, Ciao [will] power Bing Shopping. It's not just a click and you go to Ciao - you'll have all the Ciao content there. Basically, you're on Bing, but [also] you're on Ciao.
- What is your relationship like with sites such as Amazon and eBay?
With eBay and Amazon it's a particular relationship because on one side they are competitors - because obviously people want to shop on eBay, Amazon, Ciao, Google, and Google does attract a lot of traffic - but they are big clients of ours as well. Amazon is a customer we need to have, everyone looks for Amazon prices, though that doesn't mean they would be the most clicked or that everyone would buy from them.
- Finally, what are your mobile plans?
We already have a mobile version at m.ciao.co.uk, simplified obviously, with less content, but top information. So we think that the more engagement, the more communication between customers and users, so it is portable.