October 31, 2003, 12:00 AM

Beyond Products

Site search vendors are arguing that the technology needs to go beyond product-related search and browse if online retailers are to create a stellar shopping experience.

By Kurt Peters

The importance of accurate site search is well known by now: Retailers have attested to increased sales as customers have an easier time finding products. Reasoning that presenting more products would increase sales further, vendors of site search technology have beefed up their offerings until today few vendors offer plain-vanilla search. Most include spell-correcting technology and synonym finders in their products. And many go beyond simple search to present a browse function based on search terms.

Now search vendors are arguing that the technology needs to go even further if online retailers are to create a stellar shopping experience. They contend that merely directing customers quickly to precisely the right product is no longer enough; site search needs to present other relevant information as well. That information could include store policies, such as returns, shipping or product replacement; customer reviews; and tips on product usage. “Ultimately, we have to fit in with what the customer wants,” says Andrew D. Feit, senior vice president of marketing for Verity Inc., which provides site search technology for 250 electronic commerce web sites. “Search today is about recommending products and making content browsable.”

Coming around

While some vendors say they have offered such functionality for a while, retailers have been too focused on the buying experience to be much interested in other applications. But with retailers’ approach to the web becoming more sophisticated, interest in going deeper into databases is growing. “We’ve had this from the start, but the market is just now coming around to seeing the importance of it,” says Stefanos Damianakis, president of search technology vendor Netrics Inc.

If retailers accept the premise that more is better, that will raise the stakes in the site search market once again and bring a new set of search vendors to the fore-as well as knock some out of contention, either through folding shop or being acquired. In fact, Forrester Research Inc. predicts that within two years the search market will consolidate. When consolidation is complete, the market could be down to as few as two vendors, says Harley Manning, principal analyst. Forrester predicts laggards will “sell-out at fire sale prices” and likely buyers will be CRM and content management companies “hoping to improve their lackluster search capabilities.”

If that, in fact, does happen, the market for search products that access databases beyond products will expand even further as CRM and content management vendors attempt to interest retailers in using search for enterprisewide information. Some retailers already are taking such an approach. Best Buy Co. Inc., for instance, wanted broader search capabilities in its web site right from its launch three years ago, says Jeff Werness, site manager of BestBuy.com, which uses the Verity search technology. “A lot of companies see search as equaling technology, but that’s not the approach we took,” he says. “Search is a technical application that helps us achieve business goals.”

Best Buy didn’t necessarily know at the time what some of those goals were because it didn’t know how customers would use search. “But we had an inkling it was the right way to go,” Werness says. “People have different goals when they come to a web site. Some want to find products and others want to find content. And they go about it in different ways.”

At electronics retailer etronics.com, for instance, about 6% of searches are for unstructured content, says Shaun Ryan, CEO of S.L.I. Systems, which provides the search technology to etronics.com. “This is important to our client base; it is always received positively,” Ryan says.

In addition to the different information shoppers seek, even customers who are searching for products undertake different searches. “There are two things going on in search-one is a searching experience and the other is a discovery experience,” says John Felahi, senior director, product marketing at FAST Search and Transfer. “With the search experience, the customer knows what he’s looking for, he just doesn’t know where to find it. With the discovery experience, the customer uses navigation aids and classification aids to see what’s available.”

Data up to snuff

As the role of site search expands, it increases the demands on retailers’ databases. Retailers now have to make sure that not only the product information but also the support, use and company policy information is up to date. “A retailer has to look at the data and ask if the content management is good enough to allow searching on a corporate intranet and to deliver information to customers in an effective way,” Werness says.

Maintaining data integrity can be expensive in staff time and corporate resources, much more so than in the costs of acquiring the technology. For starters, there’s the question of who’s responsible. “Within an enterprise, different organizations are responsible for different silos,” says Andre Pino, senior vice president of marketing for search technology vendor iPhrase Technologies Inc. “They really have to look at how they provide a single view to all users.”

Once the manager has been identified, the next chore is to consider the state of the information itself, says Lisle Holgate, director of product marketing for EasyAsk Inc. “Have you put the content in any kind of order? Is it in a hierarchy? Does it have meta tags? What kind of information is in the documents? What kind of document is it-Word, PowerPoint, HTML?” Holgate says. “You really want a bird’s eye view of the content in the context of your business processes.”

A retailer also must decide the kinds of reports it wants out of its search technology. Specifying reports is itself a relatively new aspect of search, as retailers become more sophisticated about search and how they can use it. Reports can start with features as basic as which searches successfully showed results and which didn’t or which words customers searched on that a retailer should add to a synonym database.

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