September 28, 2005, 12:00 AM

Power Up

Retailers are using site search for a whole lot more than just helping customers find products.

When summer’s over, colder water sends kayaking enthusiasts in search of protective neoprene clothing to extend the season. One place they can find it online is at NRSweb.com, the e-commerce site of paddle sports cataloger NRS. A search under "neoprene" brings up 277 items, topped by a list of more narrowly-defined, related search terms to use in refining results, if needed. But chances are good that the first item on the results list-NRS Rodeo neoprene shorts-is just what the searcher is looking for because it is the most-searched product in the category. One click and the shorts are in the cart, with a drop-down menu then offered to capture details such as size.

With the typing in of a single search term, the visitor has found what he wanted. But if you think that with this transaction, the site search function on NRSweb.com has completed its job, think again. Today, site search technology can do much more than simply help shoppers find a product.

Continuous, closed loop

Now, analytic tools attached to site search, either through partnerships between site search and web analytics providers, or created by site search providers directly, can inform site merchandising and marketing based on customers’ ongoing interaction with the search box, in a kind of continuous closed-loop model. Marketers are tapping customers’ search behavior on their sites to rank search results, buy online advertising, identify and respond to trends, create on-site promotions and launch e-mail campaigns. In some cases, the combination of site search results, analytics and business rules even adjusts site merchandising and marketing, as those data are compiled, automatically.

At NRSweb.com, where site search is provided by SLI Systems Inc., each customer search on the site is recorded in several reports, some of which e-commerce manager Keli Keach sees daily. One report identifies the top 10 search terms on the site that are producing the fewest click-throughs. For example, if a shopper searches for an ice chest under the term "cooler"-a much broader category than just ice chests in the site’s product catalog-that search might not produce a lot of clicks, though it’s a term that’s searched frequently. "Ice chest," meanwhile, does well enough on its own with clicks and conversions, information Keach gets from another report.

Blending data

She blends data from the reports to track down copy listings in need of adjustment; in this case, making sure the search results listing for "cooler" incorporate the words "ice chest," where appropriate. By adjusting the copy in the site search listings, Keach says she can boot a site search term off the list of poorly-performing terms in as little as a few weeks. When it disappears from that list, but remains a searched term as shown in other reports, it’s because searchers are finally clicking on the listing and finding what they want. That adds up to more conversions-but site search’s contribution to the top line doesn’t end there.

Keach uses a daily report on the 50 top-searched terms on the site to spot trends and adjust marketing. "I can use the words and phrases they are searching for, apply that to the copy on different products, and start highlighting those products on our home page or in our e-newsletter," she says. "I can use that information to change our advertising-by buying a banner, for instance, somewhere on those products."

Keach is but one of many online marketers who are using site search results to squeeze better results out of their site and out of web marketing efforts. These data have always resided in the back end of site search; but now analytics make it easier to mine and use them. "The site search box is a survey taken every second," says Steve Kusmer, senior vice president and general manager of WebSideStory’s Search and Content Solution, a new offering founded on the analytics provider’s recent acquisition of site search provider Atomz. "It is, literally, finding out in visitors’ own words what they are looking for."

That’s a potential gold mine of information that marketers are using in an increasing number of ways. At Palm.com, an Atomz, now WebSideStory, client, data from site search led to a new merchandising initiative for a number of digital game products. Palm noticed a high volume of site search activity on certain games. It created a highlighted area that featured a group of the top-searched games and then displayed that group when any one of the games was typed into the search box. That feature increased conversions for the featured games by some 60%, according to Kusmer.

Driving a new strategy

At Backcountry.com, another user of the former Atomz product, data from site search has been a driver in a new strategy under which the online retailer of outdoor sporting gear is not just adjusting merchandising or marketing, but launching entirely new sites. Backcountry has built its brand by keeping its focus on high-end, high-performance equipment for the serious outdoor athlete. But for years, its record of failed searches-returning zero results because the site doesn’t carry a product-has shown that some people come to Backcountry to search for outdoor gear and apparel that falls outside that narrow focus.

The failed searches show what Backcountry could carry and likely sell, but expanding to a more mainstream selection might dilute the brand premise for its core customer, while the bigger customers of the specialized products might not go looking for them at Backcountry.com. The retailer’s solution has been instead to create new sites based in part on information it gets from what visitors look for but don’t find on the original site. Within the past year and a half, it’s grown a total of five new sites, focused on specialized concepts such as Backcountryoutlet.com for end-of-model gear, or niche product areas such as Dogfunk.com, a dedicated site for snowboarders.

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