March 31, 2010, 12:00 AM

Inside Search

Pop-ups, video buttons and color swatches can turn site search results into selling tools.

Site search is evolving rapidly. Instead of just generating a list of possible results for a search term, the site search results page can help retailers merchandise more effectively with images, color options and video. And it helps consumers find the products they want more quickly, which makes for a more pleasing shopping experience-and raises conversion rates.

The challenge for online retailers is to keep up with all the new developments and to decide which ones are right for a particular e-commerce site. With that in mind, here’s a guide to some of the newer offerings that can help improve the user experience on your site.

Ajax search

Consumers often want to refine search results, such as by price, color and size. With the technology known as Ajax, or asynchronous JavaScript and XML, there’s no need for a page refresh each time a site visitor searches, refines search results or goes to the next page. Ajax enables a shopper to request only the specific content she needs, meaning that less data is sent to the browser and results appear faster, resulting in a better experience.

Ajax-based search is particularly helpful in speeding up page load times when site search is loaded with lots of extra features and refinements, such as images, color choices and viewing choices. SLI client MotorcycleSuperstore.com, for example, uses Ajax to enable shoppers to quickly see products in the colors or sizes they’re looking for. A search for kids’ riding gear, for instance, produces several product images; the consumer can click in the left navigation bar to refine by color and size, and the display changes to show the products available in those colors and sizes.

When Motorcycle Superstore upgraded from standard site search to Ajax search, its average search conversion rate rose by 20%, according to Jason Miller, the retailer’s vice president of technology.

Video

If you have gone to the effort to create videos, you want to make sure shoppers can find them. One method is to highlight videos in your site search results. OnlineGolf.com, which puts a View Video button in search results next to products that have video, reports that customers who view product videos are 85% more likely to buy than people who don’t view videos. That’s a powerful argument for adding videos-and by adding them to site search results, customers are more likely to watch them.

Another way to mix video content with search results is to place an icon next to results that feature a video. For instance, etrailer.com, another client and a retailer of trailer supplies, uses an icon that looks like a TV screen. Another good feature in etrailer.com’s search is the ability to refine results so that the visitor only sees products that have related videos. A search for “Jeep racks,” for instance, lets shoppers click a Videos and Articles link that takes them to a list of videos related to rack installations on several different types of Jeeps.

Open search

Most web browsers, such as Internet Explorer and Firefox, feature an Internet search box. These boxes usually point to Google or another popular search engine, making it easier for people to start searching the web. It saves time that would be spent navigating to the search engines’ home pages.

What many online retailers may not realize is that they can allow their customers to add their e-commerce site’s site search function to this web browser search box, so that customers can search the retailer’s site no matter where they are on the Internet. A shopper browsing through dresses on one site could, with this feature, quickly check the dresses on her favorite e-retailer’s site, without having to navigate to the site.

A retailer can offer this by adding a simple piece of XML code to its site. The code tells the user’s web browser how to send queries to the retailer’s site search. In addition, the code adds an option to add the retailer’s site search feature to the list of available search engines from the web browser’s search box.

At AltEStore, an alternative energy products retailer, once site visitors enter a keyword in the search box they have the option to add AltEStore’s site search to their web browser’s list of search engines. In Firefox, this is done by clicking the arrow beside the browser search box, and selecting Add AltEStore.

This feature is not only helpful to external customers but also to internal employees-like help desk or customer service teams-that frequently search the company web site for customers. This relatively new feature can greatly streamline the online shopping experience. Once it becomes more common, shoppers may look for it on their favorite shopping sites. A video that explains how to do this is available at SLI-Systems.com.

Mouse-over pop-ups

When customers are browsing through dozens of search results, especially if their search is general instead of specific, they often spend a lot of time viewing each possible product. This can mean clicking on every search result to get a clear look at the product and accompanying information to figure out which one to buy-a time-consuming process, and one that can discourage conversions.

Pop-up images can make the search process easier for customers, and save them time. Shoppers can mouse over an image in the search results to see a larger version of the image and pertinent product details in a pop-up window. BedBathStore.com, for example, uses pop-up images to help visitors sort through searches that yield many results, such as for pillows or comforters. Pop-ups allow shoppers to browse many products without having to click into and then out of each result.

Color refinements

Consumers like to view products in all the different color options available. It’s now possible to extend this capability to search, allowing shoppers to see color options within the search results, then refine based on their color choice. For example, if a visitor searches for “women’s sweater,” they can then choose to refine the results to only see the red sweaters.

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