June 28, 2007, 12:00 AM

Site search gets connected

More retailers are enhancing site search functionality,an integral aspect of web shopping.

Internet Retailer

Search has become so integral to the Internet that it is no surprise the first thing nearly half of consumers do at a retailer’s web site is enter a search term. A growing number of retail sites have features that make it easier to narrow down a search. And some are tying site search into other technologies, presenting results according to customer type, best-selling items, the informational content a visitor clicks on or customer ratings.

Search functionality is increasingly a given on retail sites. A survey this year of 200 large organizations-retailers, online marketplaces, software, high-tech and other companies-by research and consulting firm Aberdeen Group, a unit of Harte-Hanks Inc., found 59% offer search tools for navigating their web sites and 96% will within two years. That made it the second most common technology employed after e-mail.

Higher conversions

Among online retailers, 70% reported that consumers who used the search function were more likely to buy than others. E-commerce platform provider MarketLive Inc. says 4% of visitors who search make purchases at non-catalog retail sites, and 8% at sites of catalogers, where visitors often have made up their mind to make a purchase after thumbing through a catalog received in the mail.

That suggests search function helps, as the overall conversion rate among online shoppers in the U.S. was only 3.1% in 2006, according to an annual survey by online retailers trade group Shop.org and research firm Forrester Research Inc. And some retailers say sales go up noticeably with improved search functions.

One way to improve results is to correct common misspellings and to associate technical terms with the natural language words a consumer might use. For instance, a consumer might not know the term “tri-band GSM phone” but knows she needs a mobile phone she can use on business trips abroad and will search accordingly.

Aberdeen says nearly half of the companies it deems best in class already use natural language technology and that 80% will within two years.

Another strategy is to enable consumers to narrow down searches by price, color, brand and other parameters. Aberdeen says 50% of its best in class companies already do this, compared with 37% of typical organizations and 18% of those Aberdeen considers laggards.

Search for cookies at DelightfulDeliveries.com, an online retailer of gift baskets, and you get 22 pages of results with 437 products. Narrow it down to “get well” gifts in the low to moderate price range and 31 products are offered. Technology from Mercado Software Inc. enables consumers to refine their searches, and DelightfulDeliveries.com says conversion rates have gone up by 25% since it began using Mercado’s system.

Lots of search data

Pet supplies retailer Petco.com feeds ratings from customer reviews into its site search engine from Endeca Technologies Inc. so visitors can choose to see highly rated products.

Petco also assigns attributes to informational articles on its site just as it does to products. That way a visitor who reads articles about housebreaking puppies is more likely to get puppy-related search results when looking for dog food. And Petco can write rules into the Endeca engine to ensure that the customer sees ads related to puppies, as well.

It’s all getting more complex and sophisticated. In fact, in a report last fall, Forrester Research analyst Matthew Brown predicted more companies will outsource site search to specialists rather than try to keep up with the constant advances in this technology. Only 9% of companies in the Aberdeen study currently outsource site search.

Whether they do it in-house or use a hosted service, retailers face ongoing investments in site search if they are going to employ the growing array of tools at their disposal to help customers home in quickly on the products they want.

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