January 31, 2008, 12:00 AM

Finding Gold

Site search is blossoming into a tool that delivers more than a list of results. E-retailers are ordering results based on business goals and beginning to blend site and web search.

Time was, the site search function on an e-commerce site had one job-deliver a list of available products to shoppers looking for specific items. Sealed in a silo, site search had no connection to other systems or web searches that brought shoppers to the site.

Times are changing, and e-retailers today use site search to do much more. For instance, they can tie the order of search results to business rules aimed at achieving targeted goals. And they can push to the top of search results relevant products with the deepest inventory or those they most need to move as a season ends, a practice dubbed searchandizing.

The latest iteration of site search rolling out on e-commerce sites and from site search vendors addresses the divide between web search and site search with technology that uses data gleaned from shoppers’ web search behavior to serve up more relevant site search results.

The evaporating barrier between how e-retailers use web search and site search to drive sales isn’t the only way the site search of today differs from that of a few years ago. With help from new technologies and the influence of Web 2.0 social exchanges on online shopping, site search is starting to look different, too. Ajax technology that speeds refinement of search results, search clouds that give shoppers an instant, graphical depiction of what’s hot, even search results that serve up video “salespeople” are emerging to grab shoppers’ attention and draw them farther down the path to purchase.

What Ratnaker Lavu, vice president of technology at Macys.com, has to say about what Macy’s has learned about site search and how it’s leveraging that knowledge in new ways might apply to any online retailer looking for more out of site search. “There is more data available today,” he says. “Analyzing that data and coming up with features and functions that improve the experience is an ongoing process.”

The right page

A new blend of site search and web search is boosting conversion at CableOrganizer.com, an online retailer of products for taming the growing hornet’s nests of electrical wires and cables that help keep homes and businesses running. About 70% of CableOrganizer.com’s customers arrive at the site via web search, mostly from Google. But natural search doesn’t always send web searchers to exactly the place on the site that has what they’re looking for, says chief operating officer Paul Holstein.

For example, consumers who did a web search on “label printer” and clicked on CableOrganizer.com’s listing in the results would be delivered to the site’s home page, which doesn’t feature label maker products. “If you look at our home page, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with label printers. So people were bouncing out,” he says. “For some reason, my home page had higher rankings for ‘label printer’ than the correct landing page did. But I can’t control Google’s organic search-it’s going to send people wherever it’s going to send them.”

While the interface with web search didn’t always work as Holstein wanted, CableOrganizer.com’s site search function from SLI Systems Inc. was effective at getting visitors who used the search box to the right products on the site. Holstein’s question: Why couldn’t web search’s power to expose the site to a huge online audience be combined with SLI’s ability to get searchers to exactly the right spot?

Getting shoppers who reach a site by means of organic web search to the right landing page usually is a job for search optimization rather than site search. But in July, after six months of development, CableOrganizer.com was ready to test something new. It wrote JavaScript that immediately captures the referring domain and keyword of an inbound web searcher. That JavaScript then runs the domain and keyword data through the site’s search.

Next, site search intervenes to send a web searcher to what it, rather than the web search engine algorithm, deems the most relevant landing page on the site. The data transfer that makes it all happen occurs instantly, in the second between when a web searcher clicks on the CableOrganizer.com listing in web search results and when he’s delivered to the site.

CableOrganizer.com has filed for a patent on its innovation and intends to make it available for sale. In the meantime, on its own site, the feature has tripled traffic. Dan Shields, e-commerce initiatives manager, says traffic has risen in part as a function of indexing: SLI indexes the content on CableOrganizer.com as searches on the site accumulate.

Fresh content

Because the SLI function is running more searches on the site, with each click from a web search now counting toward the total in addition to site searches that don’t originate as a web search, SLI is indexing content on CableOrganizer.com more frequently. Search engine spiders read frequent indexing as fresh content, a factor that pushes CableOrganizer.com’s listing higher up in natural search. That, in turn, leads more web searchers to see and click on those listings.

“We are performing three times as many site searches, which means three times as many indexes per cycle, so we are bringing our traffic up and in the process bringing in more shoppers, who are converting at a higher rate,” Shield explains.

Prior to adding the JavaScript linking site search and web search, CableOrganizer.com had been converting at an average of about 2%. Conversion is now 2.5% to 2.75%, and sometimes hits a run of 3%. Linked to web search, site search now is doing about 3,500 searches per day, triple its previous volume.

Macys.com is taking a different approach to getting more out of site search. It is applying data dynamically to how it orders and displays search results, rather than leaving the process entirely to merchandisers or static algorithms.

“Site search is an important piece of our overall search strategy,” Lavu says. “We look at search as a three-legged stool including paid search, natural search and site search. We believe all three are important to the future of understanding what a Macys.com customer is looking for as part of the Macy’s brand experience.”

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