July 1, 2010, 12:00 AM

Site Search

Retailers work harder to deliver the right results

Lead Photo

Consumers don't want to hunt around a retailer's web site for a product. They want to find it quickly and with minimal effort.

That's why site search is a crucial element of any retail site, Forrester Research analyst Ron Rogowski wrote in a recent report. "Once they've used search unsuccessfully, users aren't likely to keep trying," he wrote. Indeed, another Forrester study found that 47% of shoppers who failed to find what they were looking for didn't attempt a second search. Another 30% tried just twice. That shows that retailers have few chances to help shoppers find what they're looking for before shoppers look elsewhere.

Because of consumers' unwillingness to endure failed searches, retailers are increasingly focused on improving the sophistication of their site search to ensure shoppers can narrow down their searches, says Lauren Freedman, president of research firm The E-tailing Group. For instance, 72% of merchants say they plan to add or improve their on-site search, up 4.3% from 2009, according to a recent survey from The E-tailing Group. Those improvements include adding an autosuggest function to help users select the right search terms and recognize misspellings, filters that allow shoppers to sort by categories such as brand or price, as well as guided navigation.

Simple is better

Even though the technical elements of search can be complex, the end goal should be simple—return relevant results and put those results in a useful interface, wrote Forrester's Rogowski. Shoppers shouldn't have to scroll through several irrelevant results to find what they're looking for, and the site's interface should make it easy for shoppers to sort through results, he wrote.

One way to speed along the process is to add an autosuggest feature to a site search. Doing so helps shoppers who don't know exactly what they are looking for or are uncertain of the correct terminology. For instance, on Apple.com, when a shopper enters keywords into the search box, the site suggests related product search terms along with associated images.

Search for a jacket on LLBean.com and you get 160 different products. But the retailer makes it easy for shoppers to quickly filter results by multiple criteria such as price, size or color.

Putting results in context can also help. Amazon.com helps narrow a consumer's focus by suggesting broader search terms so that when a shopper looks for a "leaf blower" the site displays "Related Searches: gas leaf blower, cordless leaf blower, leaf blower gas" above the search results so the shopper can refine his search.

Sales boost

Site searches that give consumers what they want can provide a significant boost to a merchant's bottom line. One manufacturer boosted its conversion rate among visitors who used its site search 23% after it added thumbnail images to its on-site search results and optimized its algorithms to move up the most relevant results, according to a report by Forrester analyst Leslie Owens. But in order to experience that type of result, retailers need to find out what's not working on their site, wrote Owens.

To do so they can look in-house or they can outsource their site search to specialists who are up on the latest advances. Either way, they need to think about the task like consumers who interact with a site for a specific purpose, such as locating a hard-to-find pair of pants. Any features they add should have one purpose—make it easy for a shopper to find what she's looking for, says The E-tailing Group's Freedman.

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