December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

From hide to seek, lost to found

When is a bedspread a comforter-or a chenille throw? Issues such as this point up the challenge of creating reliable search functions on e-retail sites. The all-too-typical result is that search stinks, to quote a recent report by Forrester Research.

“The ground zero reason is content,” says Yaron Dycian, director of product marketing at Mercado Software, a Palo Alto, Calif., search engine vendor. “If a site’s products aren’t described well or organized well, nothing will help customers find what they’re seeking.”

Of 36 e-retail sites queried by Forrester, only two could say what percentage of users bought products after using a search. Overall, 71% of Web sites it polled failed to handle synonyms or misspellings, and 40% did not retrieve the most relevant items in the catalog. Part of the problem is that little goes into selecting search technology. More than 60% of sites built their own search engines or use versions included with Web server software.

Pet supplies e-retailer Petopia is among a growing list making the switch from home-built search engines to vendor products. Its previous engine, which allowed users to search broadly by product or animal type, typically retrieved hundreds of products-many not suited to the customers’ request. The company won’t say how much it has invested in its new engine, but its choice-Mercado’s IntuiFind, starts at $50,000, plus a $50,000 licensing fee. Forrester estimates the average cost at $520,000, including the technology, content “cleansing” and interface development.

Petopia program manager Ken Cushman says the installation took about six weeks, including time spent reclassifying the site’s content and breaking it into subsets more easily searchable. In the works are plans to use the search engine to suggest related products and integrate with promotions. “But just by turning it on,” says Cushman, “the level of results far exceeds what we were able to do before.”

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