thefind.bmpIf you’re searching to buy a product online, there’s no single “branded” engine that stands out — and for a reason. All of the major shopping engines sites have sold out to advertisers.

This may represent a grand opportunity: If a Google-like search engine emerges in shopping, perceived to be without bias, it could be hugely popular. It could “become the ubiquitous brand,” said Dan Ciporin, the former CEO of Shopping.com, calling this a “missed opportunity.” Ciporin left Shopping.com when it was acquired by eBay in 2005, and this week joined a venture firm Canaan Partners in its Westport, Connecticut office.

However, its unclear to us whether there ever will be a singularly popular shopping engine. There are too many ways to shop.

Here’s the background: Leaders like Shopping.com (owned by eBay), Shopzilla (owned by Scripps) and Pricegrabber (bought by Experian), and independents Become, Nextag and others all feature results that are paid for by vendors — so you’re never really sure why a particular product or vendor is ranked high or low. Many of them even buy search traffic by placing ads on Google and Yahoo. The sector is in malaise, experiencing a wave of management defections — even as a host of new companies are springing up to pick off niches. Retrevo and others are targeting consumer electronics. Ugenie focuses on books, and Like.com specializes in fashion, jewelry and textiles. Reflecting the fragmented state of shopping search, new sites like Roboshopper are aggregating results — just like the “meta” search engines that showed up several years ago to aggregate Google, Yahoo and Ask. But like those, Roboshopper’s site doesn’t really add much.

Even Google’s search engine, Froogle, has veered from purity. It forces vendors to submit “feeds” to its engine, effectively forcing out the small retailers who don’t want or know how to. Many brand names like Amazon.com and Williams-Sonoma aren’t represented.

Thefind, a Mountain View start-up, says its approach — of providing only unpaid results — is paying off. It crawls large portions of the Web, and returns results based on its relevance criteria. It has built its own equivalent of Google’s “Pagerank,” but for shopping, counting incoming links to a particular product as a sign of relevance, and accounting for things like how frequently it shows up at popular retail outlets. Thefind says it will hit a million visits next month, after only six months. It has some work to go in making consumers appreciate its benefits (relevance is difficult to showcase in shopping search, and semantics can be tricky; type in “dress shirt” at Thefind, and women’s clothing make up the top two results, with only the third result getting you to a men’s dress shirt from Jos A. Bank), but it looks to be on the right track. Thefind may be one to watch. It is raising its next round of capital.

[Update: See our update on Thefind, where we have revised our opinion on the company. Its results aren’t as clean as we thought.]

Still, despite such efforts, peoples’ interests, motivations and tastes range so greatly, the concept of “relevance” may be more fleeting in shopping than it is in regular search. We’re more uncertain than ever there will be a single category killer in shopping search.

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