June 30, 2006, 12:00 AM

Site Search

Search engine marketing may get shoppers to a retail site, but that’s only half the battle in getting them to the products they want-from that point on, much of that task falls on the site search function. And if online merchants still question how critical this function can be to e-commerce success, they might consider this recent statistic from a study by the Patricia Seybold Group and WebSideStory Inc.: Shoppers who use site search on an e-commerce site buy 270% more than shoppers who don’t.

Few applications are more effective than site search at converting shoppers into buyers and improving the overall visitor experience at the site, according to study author and Seybold Group senior vice president and senior consultant Susan Aldrich. “Site search tells you what your customers want, in their own words,” she says. “Great site search is the engine that drives your business.”

Providing intelligence

These days, it does that in more ways than simply connecting customers with the right product once they arrive at a site; it also provides intelligence that site operators can use in areas such as merchandising, site design and even inventory reconciliation. At discount designer apparel retailer Bluefly.com, product information loaded into its site search engine is also fed to the marketing and merchandising department. The feeds depict actual inventory, making it possible for those departments to ensure the products are available, and also to see the attributes of the products so as to develop promotions around these characteristics.

Marketers also are tapping customers’ interaction with site search both to rank search results and spot trends. Palm.com, for example, noticed a high volume of site search activity focused on a number of digital games. Using that information, it created a highlighted area on a web page featuring the top searched games in one place. It then displayed that entire group when any of the individual games within the group was typed into the site search box. That feature increased conversions for the featured games overall by about 60%.

Much of the buzz around site search has been around its ability to put into marketers’ hands the power to adjust search results according to business rules that serve broader objectives-for instance, arranging search results to place merchandise the merchant wants to move at the top. Some of the newest site search technology, teamed with web analytics, can automatically change those rules dynamically based on data as it’s compiled on the site: for instance, changing an item that appears at the top of site search results listed as “most popular” in its category depending on how sales of the item are going.

Anticipation

Still other site search innovations are moving beyond automating the presentation of results based on business rules and analytics to anticipate what the searcher wants before the searcher asks for it. Generally, product database search puts the onus on the searcher to keep entering queries until those queries find something in the database that the retailer has: essentially, a sort of guessing game. At least one site search technology developer is working on a product that tackles that by returning results that represent not only the precise value the searcher has asked for, but also the values immediately above or below that, such as a specified price, for example. The “fuzzy” search application works for any products that are associated with multiple specifications and data fields-such as digital cameras, for example-and already is being employed in real estate searches.

Recast from passive guidepost to active merchandising and marketing tool, site search has moved beyond its original role of helping shoppers find what they want on a site. And while that may still be the way today’s consumer experiences site search, today’s smart marketer understands it’s something much more.

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