November 5, 2009, 12:00 AM

Google promises fast results with its new site search tool for e-retailers

Google introduced today a site search tool aimed at larger online retailers, Google Commerce Search. The tool can deliver search results in under a second, much faster than most site searches today, says Google.

Google Inc. launched today a new site search tool for e-commerce sites, and says that what it’s learned from delivering search results on Google.com will enable it to provide better and faster results when shoppers search on retail sites.

The new product, Google Commerce Search, is aimed at larger online retailers, says Nitin Mangtani, lead product manager for Google’s enterprise search products. That would include the Internet Retailer Top 500 in North America, the smallest of which registered $9 million in online sales in 2008, and similar online merchants in other markets. He says the annual subscription price starts at $50,000, and includes all hardware and software, as Google hosts the site search technology and delivers it in a software-as-a-service model.

Drawing on its technology and expertise that enables it to deliver fast search results on Google.com, Google Commerce Search returns site search results very quickly, typically in around 250 milliseconds, Mangtani says. He says that, apart from the very largest online retailers, site searches typically take at least two seconds at e-commerce sites, and often more. “There’s just a huge difference between what we’re talking about, subseconds, versus seconds,” he says. “It’s an order of magnitude faster.” Faster results will lead to consumers searching more and staying on e-commerce sites longer, Mangtani says.

The product also allows retailers to define ways to narrow searches, such as by color, price or brand. The tool corrects misspellings and recognizes the various ways consumers might describe a product, using Google’s experience in responding to vast numbers of searches at Google.com.

Google Commerce Search easily integrates with Google Analytics, a free tool many online retailers use, although it can also be easily made to work with other analytics packages, Mangtani says. In addition, data that merchants provide for Google’s shopping feature, formerly Google Base and now named Google Merchant Center, is automatically fed into the site search product and will show up in site search results.

Among the couple of dozen retailers that have been testing Google Commerce Search is footwear retailer Birkenstock USA, which deployed the tool on a site it launched in May, BetterWalking.com. Originally, the site used another Google search service that just returned the kind of text results that would appear on Google.com. The new tool, installed about a week ago, allowed the retailer to add images and customize how the site displays search results, says Martin Bell, e-commerce manager at Birkenstock USA. “It was a world of difference,” Bell says.

Bell says it only took a few hours to add the coding to his site that implemented Google Commerce Search, and most of that time was devoted to designing how search results would appear.

While Google’s name will no doubt get it a hearing from online retailers, rival vendors of site search technology are responding to the challenge. “Google’s Commerce Search may be an interesting option for small web sites doing less than $5 million in online sales, who don’t wish to have great control over their online search experience,” says John Andrews, vice president, solutions marketing and product management at Endeca Technologies Inc., a provider of site search systems. “However, it will create challenges for larger e-commerce companies that differentiate based on their web site experience, and see significant revenue opportunities in giving business users control to innovate and adjust the online experience.”

As for Google touting subsecond response times, Andrews says that’s a must for leading e-retail sites. “The real question around performance is not just in returning a search result, which is where Google is focusing,” he says. “It’s about returning everything else that makes the search experience truly unique–guided navigation filters, contextual promotions, spell correction, dynamic landing pages, etc. Not to mention the control that e-commerce teams wish to exert over the site, and the business user tools required to support that. Delivering the rich search and customer experience demanded by retailers, while supporting thousands of queries per second across thousands or millions of SKUs is a challenge that has kept many of the other large search vendors out of the e-commerce market.”

Gartner analyst Van Baker says it’s too early to tell how the Google product will fare. “It is fair to say that on average most retailer site search falls short of what it should be, and I think it is fair to say that Google has the best search algorithm technology,” Baker says. “Whether Google’s technology can really deliver for retail is what remains to be seen.”

The $50,000 price point makes it less expensive than the guided navigation technology from Endeca, but does not offer a similar price advantage when compared with products from companies like SLI Systems or the Fact-Finder offering that German vendor Omikron Data Quality GmbH is bringing to the U.S., says AJ Leale, vice president of consulting at e-commerce technology advisory firm FitForCommerce. And that price tag will put Google Commerce Search out of the reach of most smaller online retailers, he says.

He says the product seems solid, but it will take time to determine how well it works for various industries and product mixes. “Although Google has a good history of web application development, this is still a new application and retailers need to do their diligence and assess all of its features versus their needs to determine if it is an option for their sites,” Leale says.

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