February 27, 2003, 12:00 AM

A competitive market is pushing site search technology to new plateaus

Competition among developers is pushing site search capabilities to new highs.

By Kurt Peters

Until last fall, the search function at NeimanMarcus.com was typical of e-retailers. “It was very frustrating. Results very rarely were spot on and in many cases there were no results,” says Michael Crotty, vice president of marketing of Neiman Marcus Group Inc.’s Neiman Marcus Direct. “It was terribly flawed.”

As many as 30% of visitors to the site started their trips with the search function and many exited when the searches turned up no results. “It was making an impact on the conversion rates,” Crotty says. “We were leaving money on the table.”

Neiman Marcus’s problem was the same problem that most retailers faced when building out their web sites: It was relying on the search function that came with the Oracle database and that just wasn’t good enough for Neiman Marcus’s purposes. “It was looking for a perfect match between what the customer typed in and the phrases that were in the database,” Crotty says. “And you just can’t expect consumers to know how things are worded in your database.”

Flourishing

Neiman Marcus decided last year it needed to beef up its search function. In doing so, it came to a conclusion that more retailers today are reaching. “I talk to a lot of retailers and search just wasn’t a priority a year ago,” Crotty says. “But now it is a much higher priority and everyone’s come to that conclusion at the same time.”

Indeed, if the vendors’ reports about customer signings are any indication, search has climbed in the rankings of retailers’ priorities. EasyAsk Inc. reports that it’s tripled its customer base in the last year, adding BassPro, The Bombay Co., Talbots Inc., Joann.com, Lenox Inc., LampsPlus, J. Jill Group Inc., and SmartBargains.com. Mercado Software Inc.’s customer signings in the past 12 months include U.K. retailer the John Lewis Partnership, Macys.com and Boise Office Solutions. Endeca Technologies Inc., a relative newcomer to the market, reported it landed high-profile online retailing sites Ritz Interactive Inc., Crate & Barrel, BarnesandNoble.com and HSN.com as well as specialty retailer ChristianBook.com and Canada’s Indigo Books & Music Inc. IPhrase Technologies Inc., which powers the Neiman Marcus search, also drives the search at Staples.com as well as Gateway.com. “We’re seeing a lot of interest this year,” says Yaron Dycian, Mercado’s director of product marketing. “Last year was a slow year in general, but we’ve seen a lot of interest in Q1 this year.”

Arcane terminology

In fact, search is rising fast enough on retailers’ hit lists that the industry continues to attract new players. In addition to EasyAsk, Mercado, Endeca and iPhrase, other search vendors are touting their retail wins. Verity Inc., a major provider of enterprise search, for instance, provides search technology for Cabela’s Inc. and The Home Depot Inc. New Zealand-based S.L.I. Systems has landed Etronics.com and PCRush.com in the past six months for its ASP-based product and is making a push into the U.S. Meanwhile, Chicago-based Logika Corp. is also promoting its ASP-based model to retailers. “There’s been a tremendous flourishing of vendors,” says Harley Manning, research director of Forrester Research Inc.’s customer experience practice. “There are so many vendors, it’s hard to keep track of them all.”

Forrester estimates that more than 100 vendors deliver some kind of search product. And to complicate matters, Forrester notes in its Upgrade to the Right Search Engine report: “Companies selling search solutions tout a dizzying array of capabilities based on arcane technology.” Among the terms that Forrester says confuse users, and which Forrester decodes, are Boolean, clustering, linguistic analysis, natural language processing and vector-based (see box). Forrester offers a simple way through the thicket: “Buyers should focus on user needs and content attributes,” Forrester says. User needs address whether search customers need keyword results or more sophisticated results such as guided navigation. Content attributes include data type, metadata and breadth of subject matter.

With the proliferation of search providers, vendors are boosting the wattage of their offerings to outdo one another. Enhancements have come so quickly that mere accurate search results from a relational database, which some vendors were touting as their edge only 18 months ago, are no longer enough. The most common enhancement is to add navigation to search, itself almost old news by now. Others offer merchandising options so retailers can set rules as to which products to present high up in the search results. Many also have added analytic functions to help retailers understand and improve not only the search function itself, but also what search reveals about how customers use the site and how they react to products. And some have added yet other functionality, such as EasyAsk’s My Store feature that allows customers to store search criteria and access the most up-to-date inventory when they return. “Having a solution that works only in relational databases is not to have a product at all,” Manning says.

Good feedback

Combined search and navigation functions present search results as well as a menu of options in case the product the customer wants does not show up in the search results. Usually, the options are presented by category across the top or down one of the sides, organized in such a way that customers can zero in on products. Getting customers to the right products quickly is key, retailers say. “E-commerce is more about destination shopping and less about browsing,” says Linsly Donnelly, COO and co-founder of Idea Forest, which operates the Joann.com crafts site for Joann Stores Inc.

In Joann.com’s case, ease of search was extra important because its customers are older women-average age 47-who don’t have sophisticated connections or a lot of online experience. “We have to get her to what she is interested in quickly because she doesn’t have the bandwidth or the experience on the Internet,” Donnelly says.

Joann.com installed search-and-browse technology from EasyAsk in January. So, for instance, a customer who searches on “scissors” sees results of scissors, but also sees sorts by other criteria. For instance, she will see subcategories by use-scissors for kids, crocheting or scrapbooks. While Donnelly says Joann.com does not have enough history with the product yet to measure its effectiveness, early feedback is positive. “We’ve gotten e-mails from customers saying how easy it is to find products on the site,” she says.

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