Online retail should embrace principles of oEmbed and OpenGraph for new and improved retail experiences

by Matt Scheurich

Providing public access to clear product data and encouraging shared information practices could help grow online retail and encourage better experiences for manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike. (TL;DR!)


The Internet operates on the principle of open networks and data that can be accessed from a variety of devices and touch points: personal computers, mobile, TVs, watches—and even refrigeratorscan use the web to talk and share information with each other.

We use words like “sharing” and “connecting” synonymously with the positive attributes of a globally connected ‘net, one where online retail is—according to Remarkety’s Global eCommerce Sales, Trends & Statistics 2015—resulting in over $562bn of spending in China and approximately $350bn of spending in the USA. That is a s**t-tonne of moola for just 2 countries, not counting all the other ones in the world where online retail is going hoots too.

Insane! (Image taken from http://www.remarkety.com/global-ecommerce-sales-trends-and-statistics-2015 with full run-down of world hoots)

And yet through this network of connected devices, websites, and data, it seems a little bit convoluted to make the audience-advertising-marketing-selling-stuff dots connect properly, even with the information superhighway connectivity—currently funnelled through the Google machine crawling all the world’s data and making their own arbitrary connections to it all, based on their secret Panda sauce algorithms.

There’s currently a global trend in retail where mobile use is increasing, and yet transactions most often occur on regular PCs—possibly due to widespread poor mobile support for many out-of-the-box e-commerce solutions. That some “connected” solutions in retail either don’t exist, aren’t adequately supported, or aren’t optimised for retail’s needs.

Shopify’s 3 Ecommerce Trends You Need To Know For A Profitable 2015 highlights the rise and affect of social media within online retail’s ecosystem. Facebook’s dominance is probably because they’ve got a greater audience compared to the others.

When looking at the standard of online retail solutions, small to big (Amazon, eBay, Etsy, Magento, Shopify, BigCartel, TicTail, Zen Cart, WordPress using WooCommerce, to name a select few), everything is currently designed and structured as “siloed information”: self-contained websites and databases that vary in size, format, and access. These self-contained units house information about manufacturers, products, retailers, and consumers, to best inform and deliver products to consumers—ultimately to make “do££ar ca$h mon€y”. No doubt some smart ones contain some kind of API backend system to be accessible to their apps or partnered businesses.

Due to demands of design, age of software, developer awareness and abilities, and strategic technological and commercial business direction, the valuable data often contained within these “silos” are routinely obfuscated from the tenets of the open ‘net.

Definitely the wrong kind of tenets.

In fact, today’s ‘net, as it currently exists and relates to retail, is a kludge of advertising and social media “techniques” that act like a distended exoskeleton clamoured together with string, matches, flammable glue, and coated in asbestos (just for more flammability), barely supporting the important connections necessary between manufacturer, retailer and consumer to improve growth.

Why should I have to search for a product in a search engine in another window/app/device when I’ve seen something cool to wear on Instagram? I can see it right there—where’s the button, the link? A lonely example in the vastness of online retail, but one that currently has a few clumsy methods, all of which aren’t elegant, nor open solutions to a fundamental retail problem: visibility. One, which the tenets of the ‘net is designed and capable of facilitating, and one which an open technological strategy and execution would arguably allow more potential for exposure, accessibility and immediacy. Let me say that again: to get that do££ar ca$h mon€y.

Not only that, most of the solutions for sharing product information from manufacturers and retailers are primarily instigated by—and rely on—the consumer, via reviews and social media (digital’s version of “word of mouth”), or through advertising/marketing teams, businesses and partners engineered to use (and abuse) channels of email mailers, advertising, social media, and “content marketing” in order to get that sweet, sweet exposure that could lead to sales (do££ar ca$h mon€y!).

That is a lot of dosh!

With further exploration and development of established standardised format protocols like oEmbed & OpenGraph for retail purposes, the techniques employed could facilitate new and better connections between manufacturers, retailers, and consumers online.

Wide-spread adoption of these open standards could enable new business opportunities to craft integrated experiences for manufacturer, retailer, advertiser, and consumer alike, with a rich, strong connectivity that promotes relevant and reliable information sharing and generates new activity that could lead to enhanced market and business analysis for improving growth and visibility. Let me illustrate it this time: 💰💰💰👋😎👍

Ultimately I’m just exploring an idea that’s come to mind, curious to see if it could be a practical solution.



What’s currently happening with online retail?

The existing world of online retail involves products to buy/sell, inventory management, payment systems, manufacturers, retailers, advertisers, and consumers.

An expansive ecosystem of e-commerce solutions are available, all which fulfil a wide range of needs to a highly variable marketplace:

  • Small and large manufacturers can choose to wholesale to retailers and sell direct to individual consumers with differing price brackets. Often manufacturers judge performance based only on sales to retailers, as well as manage returns/warranty issues;
  • Retailers can curate unique collections via their expertise, to sell through multiple online and physical store outlets, as well as manage inventory to then order more stock from manufacturers. Retailers judge performance based on sales to consumers, as well as manage returns, warranties, etc.;
  • Consumers can make their own products or sell their unwanted goods to a new market of consumers through various apps and websites;
  • Throughout all aspects of activity, statistics on significant behaviours can be counted and analysed.

Of all these (and many more) possibilities, there is currently no all-encompassing protocol or strategy established to link retail entities or information together, unless direct links/relationships have already been made, otherwise most defer to search engine and social network companies to collect it all and sort it out. Again, it’s just more siloed information—only the search engines and social networks are generating the metadata to facilitate the connection between product, demand and audience, which then becomes their own data to do what they will.

There’s so much duplicate data out there hosted on manufacturer and retailer sites, which is possibly incomplete, inconsistent and provides no further insights to the manufacturer, retailer or consumer; no data stat kick-back to the manufacturer, retailer or consumer that could help encourage retail growth and market relevancy (think “@” mentions, likes, or even a pingback for blogs notifying the linked blog of a connection).

One aspect of what I’m asking is: why should a retailer enter in a product’s information if it already exists on the manufacturer’s website? Why not create a software-based data connection that references the manufacturer’s managed data and displays it within the retailer’s website, also giving a nod to the manufacturer saying: “hey, I’m selling your stuff here,” or “hey, someone’s looking at buying your stuff here”. How about enabling a shared behaviour standard through the ‘net that allows manufacturers, retailers and consumers a direct line to and through each other so that they can better identify, understand, and support each others’ needs?

Currently, through web standards of semantic HTML (sometimes using microformats and microdata) search engines are developed to identify relevant information within public website HTML code to enable searchers to find and compare products, prices, manufacturers and retailers. This basically means that any manufacturer/retailer who doesn’t present and format their website information correctly (or publicly)—i.e. in a way that can be viewed and understood by software—may lose the opportunity to be seen and accountable to an audience of potential consumers. For a while many have pumped cash into SEO, SEM, social media and, to a lesser extent accessibility, to ensure adequate visibility online, all the while neglecting their most fundamental touchpoint of data: the structured code of their website, and to a lesser extent forming partnerships through shared usage of data. Social networks have become environments to test and measure target markets, marketplace viability and effectiveness.

I think it should be more direct and open than that, surely. By only focusing on search engines and large social networks to capture and assess the market on crawling, analysing and presenting product/business data to determine visibility and relevancy to a target market, it also gives them the market-share responsibility and control—effectively an oligarchy—of deciding which businesses and goods are to be more or less visible within the ranking, at a price they demand. This is one way how companies like Google, Facebook, and Instagram “monetise”.

If there was a direct protocol for manufacturers, retailers and consumers to share relevant information, this lessens the reliance on search engines and social networks to create and sustain the connections retail should be maintaining. A consumer could be looking at a manufacturer’s website, and by sharing their location could be recommended nearby retailers who stock the item in store where that user can view, try, or pick-up after purchasing online.

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This document assumes 3 core roles to do with retail:

Designers/manufacturers: individuals or companies who design and produce products for consumption/use. Herein referenced as just “manufacturers” for simplicity;

Retailers: individuals or companies who sell products;

Consumers: individuals or companies who buy products;

It’s worthwhile to mention that these 3 roles do not enforce separate entities per se, but different priorities. It’s most probable you’d get a retailer who also is a consumer, and a manufacturer who is also a retailer, etc. I’ve left out advertisers on purpose, too.

Manufacturers design & produce products and provide some kind of product specifications on their website (or in some cases, none at all). Product specifications include things like dimensions, materials, available sizes, colours, safety notices, directions of use, handling instructions, etc.

Retailers selling manufacturers’ products list these products on their site. Retailers buy and sell products which are relevant to their audience. There’s a lot of work involved in marketing and advertising to increase visibility to generate sales. In order to ensure product’s features are adequately communicated, they may copy and/or link to the manufacturer’s information.

Consumers interface with manufacturers and retailers when searching for products. They look for specifications, suitability to purpose, availability, and good deals. When looking at certain products, they will consider alternative products, manufacturers and retailers depending on their needs and behaviours.

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What’s oEmbed and OpenGraph?

As much as a web page is structured information, it often contains superfluous info regarding design & presentation, making it hard for application developers to identify and separate relevant pieces of info. oEmbed and OpenGraph are formats which help identify and represent pure information for referencing, embedding and sharing purposes. Often these are used in conjunction with APIs (application programming interfaces) when communicating between separate entities.

You may have already (unknowingly) experienced oEmbed when inserting URLs to YouTube videos or Twitter posts on your WordPress blog in order to get an embedded widget, and you will most likely have experienced OpenGraph when sharing links via Facebook.

The next two sections attempt to describe the general technical applications of oEmbed and OpenGraph and how they could be applied to retail purposes, so read on if you like, or skip straight to How could oEmbed and OpenGraph help online retail?

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oEmbed

oEmbed works as an API end point on a provider’s website (like a regular web page) that serves information about various items in a structured format—most notably JSON (JavaScript Object Notation). This end point allows accessors to reference a subject’s information with a simple consistent format that removes all the unnecessary presentation code.

An example of a JSON object which represents basic information about a single photo on Flickr. Taken from oembed.com

The reason why this information is small and stripped back is to reduce the time taken to retrieve requests when applications to talk to each other. By only providing the essential product information, it means application developers don’t need to process and strip out a lot of cruft when trying to determine what information an item has. When time equals money, the less time it takes, the more money you save.

oEmbed is mostly utilised by media content providers—Flickr, YouTube, and SoundCloud to name a few—as it helps to define the properties of the content (image, video, audio) for further usage within other applications, like Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Whatsapp, etc.

WordPress looooooooves oEmbed!

Since the JSON data model is easily extensible (meaning it can have fewer or more properties) it could also include detailed information about a product—or as much information a manufacturer/retailer is willing to share.

In one simplified example, manufacturers could provide oEmbed endpoints for their products which retailer applications could reference, instead of storing all the product information themselves. This could include product description, materials used, official website link, product photography and even a list of recommended retailers to purchase from.

Another example is that retailers could provide oEmbed endpoints for information about products (such as price, availability online and stocked store locations), which could also reference the manufacturer’s oEmbed endpoint. This creates a chain by which application developers could reference one or the other, depending on the information needed.

With an exposed oEmbed API that serves product information from a manufacturer/retailer, it’s in effect working the same as a regular public web page, except aimed at providing reliably defined product information, without presentation code, which can easily be referenced and used within other applications. Imagine tagging that Instagram photo with the brand and style of shirt you’re wearing, and someone in another country being able to see what local shops stock it and for what price to buy then and there, which leads on to you receiving a small credit from the retailer for encouraging a sale.

The additional benefit of a provider-managed API like oEmbed is that servers can monitor the activity accessing it. This generates meta information such as statistics on amount of activity (what products are being viewed) and where activity is coming from (online and geographically), to name a few. Theoretically, manufacturers could see which retailers are accessing their information, and retailers can see where they are getting activity and referrals from.

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OpenGraph

OpenGraph is another API of specifically defined item properties, except it is contained within the <head> element of an HTML page. For example, a video will have a title, excerpt, image and link to the video to embed that can be referenced for sharing on Facebook:

Sharing a YouTube link on Facebook employs OpenGraph to get a title, description, and preview image.

OpenGraph’s principle works similar to oEmbed, however it places the essential information within the HTML page itself, at the endpoint of a traditional URL. This removes any need for a specific API endpoint and could be easily integrated into existing manufacturer and retailer websites, provided they have existing endpoints for all their products.

Because this information lives in the <head> of a regular web page, OpenGraph can be easily integrated into existing web application templates. The downside, compared to oEmbed, is that there is a lot of extra superfluous information included with the rest of the page (although savvy app developers could pull only the information within the <head>, rather than the whole page).

OpenGraph’s object notation looks different to oEmbed, however it is the same principle. Properties with values are defined to be easily accessible to application developers:

An example of how OpenGraph makes an item’s properties and values visible to application developers.

As you can see in the above example, item information like og:type define the type of the referenced item (“video”), properties like og:video:width and og:video:height are the dimensions of the video, and so on.

For manufacturers and retailers, these properties could describe the various pieces of product information necessary to share and make available to application developers. It could be: the size and colour of a shirt; the power rating of an appliance; the ingredients in a packet of chips.

It’s probable most websites are already employing OpenGraph to ensure basic product information is easily referenced when sharing on social networks like Facebook. The application of OpenGraph (and oEmbed) I’m putting forward goes further than just plain sharing, though.

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How could oEmbed and OpenGraph help online retail?

Essentially what I’m proposing is a way to explore and refine the existing conventions of the ‘net for retail purposes, to encourage reliable information communication between manufacturers, retailers and consumers, with the means to encourage growth of sales and confidence in business practices.

To ensure these connections and information are quick and reliable, adopting standards like oEmbed and OpenGraph mean that applications made for manufacturers, retailers, and consumers can reliably talk to one another and pass information through.

*software

The effects of this standardisation could empower software solutions to enable:

  • Manufacturers to list and update product information from one source, which can be referenced by retailers;
  • Retailers to list and update product availability from their own source, which can be referenced by manufacturers and consumers alike;
  • Consumers to list specifications of needs/wants, which manufacturers and retailers could reference when researching/designing new or updating existing products and practices;
  • Opportunity for new businesses to manage and connect information between manufacturers, retailers and consumers.

This standardisation could further enable existing and new businesses to engineer solutions that:

  • Connect/aggregate manufacturers, retailers and consumers with relevant needs/wants faster and with less overhead;
  • Easily enable comparisons between manufacturers’ product specifications;
  • Easily enable comparisons between retailers’ product prices & availability and provide online and geographic locations to view/try/buy/pick-up;
  • In the case of fashion retail, a new business could enable consumers to list their sizes and style preferences to be then recommended manufacturers and retailers’ products for purchase;
  • A means for manufacturers/retailers to market test new/experimental products and designs to an audience;
  • A way for consumers to become manufacturer/retailer/product ambassadors, with measurable statistics to inform reimbursement and sponsorship;
  • And probably a whole lot more!

An oft-ignored fact (rather, one requiring a deft legal touch) is that consumers carry with them information that is beneficial for them to share with manufacturers and retailers alike — their own silo of information, so to speak. In today’s ‘net, this consumer information exists within manufacturer/retailer(/advertiser) databases (that is, if they elect to host and collect the information). By enabling easier transaction and management of this information, it could be considerably valuable to share between each role alike:

  • For the manufacturer it could help inform new product design decisions and marketplaces to launch new products, a new channel for research;
  • For the retailer it could inform consumer purchasing behaviours, which could dictate the amount of stock they purchase from manufacturers and in recommending similar products to consumers;
  • For the consumer it could allow a personalised shopping experience: being notified when a garment is available in a size or preferential colour, for example. Taken to the futuristic extreme, it could seed the generation of a potential bespoke new wardrobe at the click of a button, or that connected fridge could re-order groceries of your regular brands when stocks are low.

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Conclusion

By utilising the existing principles of oEmbed and OpenGraph, manufacturers and retailers could expose product information for APIs which enables opportunities to connect manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike, to share and generate reliable information to help grow online and in store retail businesses and practices.

The advantage of using already established open formats could easily encourage new businesses to create further software solutions connecting manufacturers, retailers, and consumers with the ability to ensure product sales are meaningful—contributing to reducing rate of returns, and increasing consumer satisfaction, encouraging healthy manufacturer/retailer brand perceptions.

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Thanks for reading! 🎶🎷😎
Got any ideas or further comments to contribute to my ramblings? Let me know what you think 🍻