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IAC-owned comparison shopping engine Pronto announced today that it will add new features that let users personalize and share information on products. This is also part of a general re-branding that positions social media as a key feature and point of differentiation within the online shopping world.

Specifically, new features will include personal profiles to save and share information, write reviews on brands or e-tailers, network with other registered users, send private messages, and filter product results by popularity among friends or geographic area.

This comes days after ShopLocal made similar integrations. ShopLocal primarily leads offline transactions, while Pronto is more of an online shopping engine. But these moves generally bring both companies into the “social shopping” realm.

Stepping Up

Social tools will be a nice addition to Pronto’s current differentiation strategy (examined here). Briefly, this model involves aggregating all possible retail feeds using a proprietary scraping technology, rather than just paid advertisers.

This, according to CEO Dan Marriott when we talked to him last year, increases the depth of content, usability and SEO friendliness of its content, which is then monetized with sponsored placements and contextual ads.

This is analogous to Google’s search model and, more important, is an attempt to differentiate the product from the current set of shopping engines, which obtain the same retail feeds and have little brand loyalty, differentiation or direct-navigation traffic. Currently Pronto has 70 million product listings from about 65,000 online retailers (about five times that of most shopping engines.)

Combined with new social features and marketing message, the company has a product strategy that stands out, in my eyes, among shopping engines. Consumer perception and adoption will ultimately decide this though.

The Cost to Play?

Social media is meanwhile becoming quite a competitive differentiator in local search and online media in general. It’s almost reached the status of “table stakes,” as more and more sites are integrating it and more and more users are coming to expect it.

But at some point, could there be “social fatigue” in cases where a user has personal profiles set up on Yelp, Facebook, MySpace, ShopLocal, and a variety of local and non-local online networks?

If so, social search could begin to approach the same fragmentation we see in local search. This is more of a forward-looking speculation, but in the meantime it is clear that social tools are an important way to remain competitive and increase stickiness, appeal and usability.

It’s important to remember, however, the distinction between online phenomena that build stand-alone destinations and those that will become standard features or value-added layers across a variety of destinations. Aside from major social networks, social media will largely fall into the latter bucket.

Moreover, it seems that an opportunity exists for Pronto to contend with this fragmentation challenge and increase the value (and local relevance) of its social tools by creating ways to sync up with personalization tools across AskCity, Citysearch, Ticketmaster and other IAC properties. I hope to talk to the company soon to examine these and other opportunities.

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