August 1, 2005, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: Site Search: Creating the Online Precision Shopper

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Tying to the back end

In addition to new ways to engage the customer, site search vendors are developing ways to make back-end information available to searchers in a way that will influence their purchases. SLI Systems, for instance, pulls product information from an inventory database so the shopper knows upfront if the product is available and its price. It will not display results for products that are out of stock.

FAST also offers an enterprise search tool that integrates with its site search offering. That allows site search results to display only items that are in stock, for instance, or items that are selling fast across the enterprise. “You usually find disparate search engines and databases throughout an enterprise,” Baker says. “That makes it difficult for unit managers to understand all the products that they have available.”

Tying together into one search platform such databases as inventory management, supply chain management and customer information “is very compelling for retailers,” Baker says. “Having one search platform that can handle everything is very popular with IT groups. They have to deal with only one vendor, one support agreement, and get familiar with only one platform.”

In addition, such an offering provides complete information about what’s happening throughout an enterprise. “It gives a 360-degree view of the organization,” Baker says, “with views into what customers are doing for supply chain managers, business managers, product managers, customer support personnel and so on.”

SLI today is pushing the role of site search even further with the rollout of two new offerings-Site Champion and Ad Champion. Both have the aim of ranking sites higher in search engine results. Site Champion optimizes a web site for search engines using popular search terms on a retailer’s site. That allows the site to appear higher in natural language search results. “We use the language of visitors to a site-what they’re actually looking for-to optimize the site for search engines,” Brash says. It’s an automated process that brings search engine optimization expertise to a retail staff, he adds. “There are still a lot of retailers using in-house technology that makes it hard to get listed in search engines,” he says.

The language of shoppers

Building on that, SLI on Aug. 1 introduced Ad Champion, which uses site search results to automatically generate paid ads in search engines. Brash says the rationale behind Ad Champion is “the language that people use on a site is the language people will use in search engines.”

Building lists of keywords for pay-per-click search engines is cumbersome and often a matter of guesswork, he says. By bidding on the terms that shoppers use at a site, retailers can increase the effectiveness of their pay-per-click search programs. “It creates the keyword list using very specific phrases,” he says.

The program comes with a monitoring component so retailers can see which keywords they are bidding on, how the keywords are doing and whether they need to adjust their bids. SLI has offered Ad Champion in beta until now and user feedback has been positive, Brash says. Because the bids are based on terms that customers are actually using, “it makes uneconomical advertising very economical,” he says.

FAST is pushing into another new frontier of search with a mobile search product. Under that scenario, which is admittedly still a gleam in developers’ eyes, FAST optimizes its search functionality and presentation so that customers in stores can call up information on their mobile phones and comparison shop right in the store. Retailers must be able to present their information in compelling ways to get customers to complete the purchase in the store and not go to a competitor’s business. “Mobile phone penetration will exceed broadband Internet penetration,” Baker says. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity for the retailer to connect with customers.”

Close customer relations

The way site search is developing, the technology is no longer a plug-and-play proposition. Mercado, SLI and FAST all offer extensive training for users. “We don’t see ourselves as software vendors where we give you two days of training and we’re gone,” Aloni says. “We really believe in a consultative approach.”

That approach allows ideas to flow in both directions. “We are our retailers’ partners,” Aloni says. “They come to us with ideas. Many are very forward thinking in what they want their sites to accomplish and they look to vendors to help them meet their business goals.” Ultimately, that benefits both the retailers and the vendors. “It makes e-commerce search part of a higher value suite of capabilities,” Lindsay says.

The way site search technology has been developing, it’s a safe bet that it will continue to provide retailers with many other ways to connect with customers.

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