But the move away from costly call centers has taken its toll on online retailers as well. More than half of online shopping carts that customers fill with goods are abandoned in the online shopping aisles forever, according to Forrester -- not exactly the most efficient way to close a sale.

Whether big companies find the pay-per-call ads a means to increase their overall sales or just an unnecessary and costly drag on their call centers remains to be seen. For small, local businesses, especially those that have held off on building up a Web presence, it could open the door to new customers. With the growing popularity of recommendations made on social sites like Yelp! and Tribe.net, the click-to-call feature could give mom-and-pop shops a needed bit of leverage against the major retailers.

Susquehanna's Wolk points out that, in addition to eliminating the abandoned shopping carts, the model could offer benefits to retailers large and small: better tracking of customer calls and areas of concern, shortening customer wait times, and a bit more personal attention to those lonely online shoppers.

Personal attention on the Web. What a radical concept.

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