December 29, 2008, 12:00 AM

Pointing the Way

Retailers are boosting sales by providing more relevant and informative site search results.

BabyAge.com is proving the age-old adage “A picture is worth a thousand words.” It has included thumbnail images with site search results and is achieving its own results in the form of higher conversion and average order value.

It included pictures to better direct customers to precisely what they want-ideally without conducting more than one search-while helping them discover products they’ve never seen.

“It works particularly well when customers are searching a generic term, like diapers. Do you want a diaper bag, diaper warmer?” explains CEO Jack Kiefer. “Our search used to just return text results; as soon as we included images, we saw an increase in conversion.”

But BabyAge.com, which launched thumbnail imagery in August, didn’t stop there. It decided to include product images before shoppers could even click on Go to do a search. As a shopper types in a term, suggested compound phrases are displayed in a drop-down window (sometimes called “look-aheads”) complete with product images. “Before they even get to a results page, they get visual verification they’re heading in the right direction,” Kiefer adds.

Showing shoppers the way

Consumers shop retail web sites with one of two intentions: to browse or to find a specific item. As a result, site search is one of the most important systems in e-commerce. And if it doesn’t efficiently grab shoppers’ hands and lead them straight to the products they want, an e-retailer could be in big trouble.

Some retailers, like BabyAge.com, have begun adding content to site search results, including pictures, customer ratings or free shipping notifications. Others, like 3balls.com and CDW Corp., have worked behind the scenes to improve how site search functions, changing the way search works with a site’s taxonomy or integrating site search with navigation.

As Google and Yahoo continue to innovate and improve web search, consumers’ expectations of search at individual retail sites increase, says Jim Okamura, senior partner at retail consulting firm J.C. Williams Group Ltd.

“As the bar keeps being raised, it becomes necessary for retailers to figure out if they are going to keep pace with the industry, which means they will always be one short step behind, or use site search as a differentiator by being best in class,” Okamura says. “Everyone is familiar with using site search, and most know there is room for improvement.”

Photogenic results

Kiefer saw room for im­prove­ment. This is why he brought in experts from across the company-e-commerce, I.T., marketing and customer service-to create the thumbnail imagery feature. A team of developers brought the new feature to life, creating a system in house to find and place the images on the results pages and using Ajax to display look-aheads and images below the home page’s site search box. Overall, he says, it only cost a few thousand dollars to make the change.

Part of the system creates site search-sized versions of existing product images. This is done to ensure loading of results pages is not slowed. So, for example, the system does not show a 20k jpg image in a 10×10 window, but instead displays a tailored 2k image.

Adding these pictures is important to BabyAge.com, Kiefer says, because it wants to make sure it’s getting shoppers to the products they want to view without having to load multiple pages-and because shoppers want search to be as effective as possible.

“Most of the traffic coming to our site has used search to get to us,” he says, “so we need to fully embrace the way shoppers like finding things.”

‘New & Improved’

Golf equipment retailer 3balls.com is so proud of its recent site search modifications and how they’ve affected the shopping experience that next to the search box on the home page it boasts “New & Improved Search.”

Before, site search would produce the familiar long list of results, requiring shoppers to sort through the results to see which best matched the product they were looking for. Today, site search produces the list of results but includes a Narrow Your Search left-hand navigation bar through which shoppers can refine the list of results.

A shopper who searches for a driver receives 2,109 results. The search-powered navigation bar, however, enables him to filter those results. In this case, he can click on Right Hand, which searches the results and returns 1,574 listings; then click on Men’s, down to 1,444 results; then $50 to $100, down to 20; then by the brand Cobra, down to two. The search-powered navigation bar has enabled the shopper to quickly drill down via instant navigational searches to give him a choice of two products that precisely meet his needs.

“We implemented the technology in June and saw an immediate lift in conversion. The new site search took us out of the Dark Ages,” says Doug Smith, vice president of business development at 3balls.com, which uses site search technology from Nextopia Software Corp. The vendor employs the software as a service model; the retailer sends its routinely updated product feed through the software so Nextopia can generate up-to-date site search results and lay out everything below the header on site search and navigation pages.

Navigation tabs also use the new technology. If a shopper clicks on the Driver tab, the tab performs a search of “driver” and returns a results page. What’s more, the site search system includes merchandising functionality that enables the retailer to create rules that display relevant graphics atop site search results. And results now include additional information, such as when free shipping is offered on a product or if inventory for a product is low.

“We’ve had a 20% increase in conversion. Our average order value has increased 7%. Page views have increased 40%. And average time on site has increased 15%,” reports Smith, who says the annual fee for the technology is well under $10,000. “People are spending more time navigating the site because it’s a more pleasant experience and they can more easily find what they’re looking for.”

No longer taxing

Computer products retailer CDW has enabled its site search to more easily find what shoppers are looking for by shifting away from a fixed taxonomy for product search to what its site search vendor calls a dynamic taxonomy.

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