To fight Amazon's digital dominance, retailers attack its SEO

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Retailers often try to counter Amazon's dominance by using the e-commerce giant's strengths against it, including its reliance on search engine optimization.

Search engines are a major starting point for shopping and sales on Amazon, as sellers try to master Amazon's algorithm to make their products noticeable. This results in a large share of product searches starting on Amazon. While it would appear Amazon's long history would make its SEO advantage impenetrable, there is an attempt to level the playing field for product searches.

"There is an awareness of SEO, but a also capability gap," said Mark Cummins, a co-founder of Pointy, a 4-year-old Dublin-based company that helps retailers bring products online in a way that draws notice from online shoppers who are looking for products rather than stores.

In most cases, these searchers wind up on Amazon simply because of Amazon's scale. But they don’t have to.

Cummins has an expertise in web search: He founded Plink, a visual search engine that Google acquired in 2010. Pointy's other co-founder, Charles Bibby, designed security systems for the 2012 Olympics and has experience with robotics and hardware projects.

"Amazon has tens of thousands of engineers, and local retailers can't have a team just to focus SEO," Cummins said.

Pointy on Thursday entered agreements to integrate with Square, Clover and Lightspeed, which opens Pointy's search technology to thousands of new stores, which could potentially expand Pointy's existing client base of several hundred stores in the U.S., U.K. and Ireland, particularly given the merchant acquirers' international expansion clients. In the U.S., Pointy's clients include mostly smaller retailers such as pet stores, bicycle shops, sporting goods stores and outdoor retailers.

Merchants can use the integration to have their products cataloged online, geotagged and optimized for search.

"Amazon has a number of advantages. One is the ease of search," Cummins said, adding there's nothing preventing brick and mortar retailers form having that same advantage beyond technology capabilities. "With most stores, you have to go there to look for a product. Some have a list of their items on a website, but not many."

Pointy's device pairs with the tablet point of sale terminals from Pointy's partners. The boxes cost $499, with no subscription or recurring fees. As part of the integration, Pointy will have revenue-sharing agreements with Square, First Data and Lightspeed, which it did not disclose.

The Pointy box automatically puts items in the store onto the store's website by scanning them. The items also get cataloged for SEO.

Search is one of a few fronts fintechs are tapping to sell software and hardware for merchants to take on Amazon. While Pointy is targeting online tools, many of the startups are focused on countering Amazon's encroachment onto brick and mortar, particularly its Amazon Go cashierless store.

Companies like AiFi and Standard Cognition are building concept stores that don't require cashiers, giving traditional retailers a chance to open their own versions. That idea has started to take shape, as Albertson's plans a pilot of no-cashier stores following its proposed merger with Rite Aid.

In most cases, the retail technology vendors are making an ease-of-use appeal to drive an e-commerce or in-store shopping experience that's similar to Amazon.

"The overriding trend is toward mobile. People are shopping on mobile even if they are not buying," said Ralph Dangelmaier, CEO of BlueSnap. "So there's a lot of folks out there that are trying to take the friction out of it."

The Boston-based BlueSnap, which sells a platform that combines online, mobile and e-wallet transactions for B2B and B2C, is beefing up its own expertise in mobile and other digital retail technology to address mobile and e-commerce trends. It just hired Chris Menard as CFO. Menard has worked with Cayan, Brightcove and other companies in the digital payments space, which Dangelmaier said will improve BlueSnap's ability to move quickly as retailers quickly migrate to more digital services in a market where Amazon is a major competitive force.

"If you have an understanding of how a technology company works and have fintech experience, that's a benefit," Dangelmaier said. "There aren't too many people who have that mix of experience, and having that shortens your time to market."

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