May 31, 2006, 12:00 AM

Opening Doors

Site search started life helping shoppers find what the were looking for. That simple view of the technology has changed radically.

Site search started life doing just what its name implies: Helping shoppers find what they were looking for on a retail web site. But that simple view of the technology has changed radically as site search technology developers and retailers started playing around with the technology and discovered that it was good for a whole lot more.

The evidence? Housewares and gifts retailer Lillian Vernon has equipped its call center with access to site search to quickly locate products on its web site and guide online shoppers calling in with questions to the appropriate page.

“Consumers take different paths to finding a product, some will self-navigate, others will start a search and call for help,” says Kristen Montella, director of merchandise and markets for Lillian Vernon, which uses site search technology from Progress EasyAsk. “Using search in this manner opens the door to creating a more satisfying customer experience.”

New data sources

And of course, the higher the level of satisfaction, the greater the odds of creating customer loyalty to the brand.

Lillian Vernon’s use of site search is just one example of how retailers are evolving their use of the technology to operate their businesses more efficiently. “Retailers are adding more data sources beyond web analytics and as the quantity and quality of that data grow, the importance of supporting it, connecting it and aligning it to the right product or category through search grows,” says Andy Wolf, market solutions manager for search technology provider Endeca Technologies Inc.

Doing so helps retailers improve their business processes which in turn directly impacts conversion rates and customer satisfaction. Home Depot recently upgraded its site search to direct shoppers looking for lumber to its stores. Home Depot, which deploys Endeca’s site search engine, discovered that lumber related terms were among the leading keywords that shoppers searched on at its web site. Since Home Depot sells lumber only in stores, customers got a message that there were no results to display, according to Wolf.

The solution was to tweak the site search application to link customers entering lumber-related terms to a page directing them to the nearest store. “The quality of the search experience was dramatically improved by adding a business rule that put the information returned into better context and improved the interaction between the customer and the retailer,” Wolf says.

Improving the actual quality of the site search experience is only one way retailers are using the technology to improve business processes. Bluefly.com, a retailer of designer apparel at discount prices, feeds product information loaded into its site search engine to the marketing and merchandising department. The feeds depict actual available inventory making it possible for the marketing and merchandising department to make sure the products are available, then see the attributes of the products and develop promotions around those characteristics. Previously, marketing and merchandising information was fed to a spreadsheet that defined each item in the catalog by a number.

New detail

“There were no photos, no common attributes, no detail at all about the product other than the listing number,” recalls Larry Promisel, director of e-commerce development for Bluefly Inc. “Now that product descriptions are provided, promotions can quickly be built around the attributes of the inventory, such as color, price and number of items in stock.”

Some retailers are taking the concept a step further by linking site search directly to their analytics to identify which search terms are causing items to move up in the rank orderings. The information is helpful, because it allows retailers to spot when a best seller may have dropped off the first page of results. Many consumers scan only the first page of search results.

Once retailers know the search terms that caused a best seller to drop in ranking, they can adjust the site search dictionary to expand the definitions for best sellers to ensure they remain in front of customers.

“Once retailers understand the relevancy of the search results and how they affect rankings, they can adjust their merchandising strategies accordingly,” says Lisle Holgate, senior director for Progress EasyAsk, developer of search technology. “It ties in directly to the customer delight factor.”

The market intelligence served up by linking site search to analytics can be extended to search engine marketing. By tracking which pages or products are served up most frequently by the site search application, retailers can tag those pages and send information feeds to search engines instructing them to crawl the tagged pages, which increases natural search results. Retailers can even link commonly pushed pages to blogs containing commentary relevant to the product.

“It’s about optimizing site search data to connect with entities on the web, not just return results,” says Steve Kusmer, senior vice president and general manager, search and content delivery solutions for WebSideStory Inc. “The Internet is more interconnected than ever and linking site search to other sites allows retailers to become better marketers.”

New connectivity

Retailers can also leverage the interconnectivity of the web to gain insights into how competitors have programmed their site search application and then use the insights to modify their own results pages. The strategy is especially helpful for retailers that face stiff price competition on such items as consumer electronics. “Knowing how competitors price and promote products through their site search can help retailers be certain they are competitive on price,” says Stephen Baker, general manager and vice president of business development for Fast Search and Transfer. “It’s a way to further optimize the marketing mix to drive conversion.”

This level of sophistication can even be extended by retailers to the search capabilities of comparison shopping sites. Retailers can adjust their daily, weekly or monthly feeds to these sites to reflect changes in price, availability and even their brand. Higher-end retailers such as Bloomingdale’s may be more interested in promoting merchandise that is consistent with their brand image, while other retailers may look to promote overstocks.

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