March 24, 2006, 12:00 AM

How site search helps retailers meet customers’ higher expectations

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Site search and web search share a common origin: they provide functionality that helps online seekers find what they’re looking for. Major web search engines have gotten so proficient at that task that it’s had the effect of raising the bar for site search as well. “Everybody’s been Google-ized,” says Ofer Milstein, vice president of marketing at site search technology vendor Mercado Software Inc. “Because of consumers’ experience with web search, there are higher expectations of search on e-commerce sites.”

That’s particularly true of veteran web users. According to a recent report from Forrester Research Inc., the longer consumers shop on the web, the more concerned they are about getting good results from site search. Forrester found that 74% of web users who have been active online purchasers for four or more years deem relevant site search results important, compared with only 59% of online buyers active for less than a year. Zeroing in“Two or three years ago, consumers used more browsing and navigation on a site, but now, because of their experience with Google, they feel more comfortable with keyword search. We all expect when we are searching for something that in a few attempts we will find the right product,” Milstein says.Site search doesn’t have to grapple with the sheer volume of content that web search does. Unlike the web’s seemingly infinite universe of data and products, site search pulls results from a defined universe consisting of an online retailer’s database and catalog. But that doesn’t mean site search has an easier job to do; far from it, given what retailers and online shoppers are beginning to expect of it today.Once a function that served simply to let visitors find on a site what they want in an approximation of web search, site search has evolved into something much more than that: it’s becoming a way to help online merchants actively sell customers what they want to sell them rather than simply point them toward a requested category.In that regard, site search now more than ever seeks to replicate the role of the store associate. For example, natural language processing incorporated in the technology of several site search vendors works to bridge the linguistic gaps between how a shopper describes, spells or punctuates what she’s looking for and the terminology used in the store to describe that product set. Deducing the real intentionsWith the right technology, site search engines can also capture synonyms and related terms to return relevant search results on a site query instead of “no results found,” which can quickly send the consumer off the site altogether. It’s in much the same way a store associate would show the customer looking for a women’s shirt the same items she would show a customer who asked for a women’s blouse, or would direct the shopper seeking red wine to Merlot, among other products-even though in both instances, what the shopper is shown doesn’t precisely match the language she used to ask for it. Site search also is increasingly folding in efforts at personalization, another function fulfilled in the brick-and-mortar world by store associates, who size up customers visually and direct them accordingly. “The store associate sees what gender you are, what age, the way you dress, and he’s already put you into a type of buyer’s segment,” says Milstein. “So when you ask a question, he’ll take you to one shelf, while a different person who comes in gets shown a different shelf. It’s not just about what the shopper is asking for but about what fits his needs.”Some site search technology combines search, navigation and merchandising into one function-a development the industry has dubbed “searchandizing”-that is moving out of IT and into the hands of business managers. Approaching site search as a merchandising opportunity in this way is proving worth the effort for the merchants that do so. A recent report by Jupiter Research points out that less than 50% of consumers know what item they will buy when they go online to research a purchase, so web merchants should use site search to direct shoppers to preferred products. “Retailers have a great opportunity to influence shoppers while they are searching for products,” concludes Jupiter.Searchers spend moreFor example, when Fingerhut.com implemented a new site search and navigation tool last October in time for the holiday season, it gained an estimated $1 million in incremental sales through the next four months to the end of its fiscal year. Another retailer reports that 10% of visitors use site search, but account for 37% of all sales. And yet another reports that 25% of visitors use site search but represent 40% of all sales.By configuring site search to populate relevant search results in the order that best serves the retailer’s business goals, the newest technology in that arena is helping to move the needle on sales. “When you go into a store, the associate may take you to a certain shelf of jeans because the retailer has a promotion on them, a higher margin, or inventory they want to clear because new merchandise is coming in,” says Milstein. “There are many such considerations that you want to bring online as well.”Some technology providers are pulling the processing that captures searchers’ grammar or spelling variances, business rules set by the retailer on merchandising, retailer goals on moving inventory and even data on customers’ interests, individually or by segment, into one interface to generate site search results. Mercado’s Commerce search and Navigation application, for example, includes such functionality in an administrative console geared to the operation of a retailer’s business managers. This degree of personalization in site search is just developing and still not in wide use. However, it’s likely to become more commonplace as site search and navigation vendors integrate their offering with those of analytics vendors. The combination affords potentially quick feedback on and therefore the opportunity to quickly adjust site search performance. With the ability to customize search results according to variables such as profit margin and inventory levels, “the next logical direction is toward customized results based on where a customer came from and what her interests are,” says Jupiter analyst Eric Peterson. Ultimately, effective site search may mean that all of the merchandising opportunities on a web page-results listings, related items, collateral material-could be presented differently to different searchers, with the goal of creating from each customer’s site search the page experience most likely to drive a sale. “It’s really about providing merchandisers with the power to do whatever they want to do themselves,” says Milstein.
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