Alibaba Invests in Smarter Search, but Potential for E-Commerce Lies Elsewhere

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Tech in Asia, reporting on Alibaba investing in a startup that is building smarter ecommerce search:

Twiggle, a startup that’s trying to build better ecommerce search tech, announced today it has secured funding from Alibaba. This round for the Israel-based firm is in addition to the US$12.5 million it raised in April led by South African digital media behemoth Naspers, which is also an investor in Tencent. (…)

Twiggle says it has developed a platform for ecommerce search based on artificial intelligence (AI). It uses knowledge graphs and natural language search systems. Its algorithm makes search more intuitive, effective, and better suited for mediums such as mobile search, voice-based search, and conversational interfaces.

That sounds impressive. But it is ‘just’ optimizing a way of discovering products / of using online retail. That mode is already very prevalent. More interesting are all the ways of shopping that are still underserved by online retailers. Browsing, getting inspired and/or guided (‘curated’) towards products one didn’t know one wants. Or social experiences, a nut still not truly cracked in E-commerce.

There are product categories where you know you want to buy a new product and you start looking for the product you want to buy. In these cases, Twiggle, if it works as advertised, will do wonders:

Rather than searching for generic descriptions of products, such as a “double door white refrigerator,” shoppers can say something like “I want a two-door fridge that doesn’t make too much noise which is also white, which is new, has great reviews, and is a good value for the money.”

But what about fashion, food, or home and living? What about “I’m looking for a nice couch for my living room”, emphasis on ‘nice’?

There is a whole other pie waiting for the taking for online retailers once the industry starts working towards serving a wider array of use cases. (And maybe bringing more women into executive positions? Diversity has more to offer than just good company culture. Today’s online shopping is modeled after the way most men shop for a reason. That reason needs to go way.)

Think German Outfittery, where stylists create complete styles for men or the similar Zalon from Zalando. Think recipes and ingredients instead of unbundled groceries. Think Dash buttons, completely eliminating every bit of friction after inital brand selection and setup, instead of the most sophisticated search for consumables.

By catering to completely different needs all these examples create a lot of room to grow in. And in the process they, as a nice side effect, avoid getting into an arms race with Amazon and Alibaba and the likes. The latter group, let’s admit, owns “I know what I want and now I am going to search for it”.1

So, don’t pay too much attention to technical progress in search, is what I am saying.

There are far more bigger fish to fry.

More on this topic:


  1. Yes, I know. The reason Amazon is so fascinating to analyze is because the company is very successful with the traditional search and buy mode and yet works hard to establish very different distinct ways of shopping digitally, from Dash buttons to Echo to Style Code Live. 

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  1. […] Alibaba Invests in Smarter Search, but Potential for E-Commerce Lies Elsewhere […]

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  2. […] Alibaba Invests in Smarter Search, but Potential for E-Commerce Lies Elsewhere […]

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