August 1, 2010, 12:00 AM

Outside the Box

Site search helps consumers find what they want, and retailers understand what consumers are thinking.

Lead Photo

Some truck and SUV enthusiasts call the protective plastic covers they attach to the front end of their vehicles a bug shield and others call it a hood shield. Bug shield, hood shield—it does the same thing, so what’s the difference?

At RealTruck.com the difference is a 6% increase in conversions from identifying the most commonly used term and emphasizing it in product descriptions and marketing campaigns.

“The bounce rate, conversion rate, sometimes even the average order size—almost any metric will improve if you can align your terminology with consumers’,” says RealTruck president Jeff Vanlaningham.

Like Vanlaningham, many online retailers now analyze site search data, searching for ways to improve sales. Not only is the data there for the asking, since consumers are constantly searching for products the site search box also provides a way for retailers to adapt to changes in consumer demand as they occur.

RealTruck got better at speaking its customers’ language after examining reports from its site search vendor Endeca Technologies Inc. The e-retailer uses Endeca On Demand, a hosted service delivered by its e-commerce platform vendor, Thanx Media.

Vanlaningham says he was surprised by how much he was able to learn from site search data after switching a year ago to Endeca. “My expectations on going to a new search product were geared toward the consumer’s experience on our web site,” Vanlaningham says. “I was surprised at how much benefit we received on the back end.”

No more hedging

RealTruck.com already knew that depending on their geographic location, age and other factors, shoppers used different terms to search for identical products. Not knowing which was the more popular term, RealTruck for a time hedged its bet by giving equal weight to “bug shield” and “hood shield” in how it optimized pages for natural search and in its paid search bidding strategy.

But then it examined Endeca reports on which term searchers actually typed into the site search box. “We determined that ‘bug shield’ is the more popular term,” Vanlaningham says. “Before, we were trying to play both sides of the fence. But that knowledge changed the dynamic of how we put up product descriptions. It changed the direction in which we go after SEO and it changes our pay-per-click strategies, because we are going to bid more on a term more people use.”

And most immediately, it used the knowledge to boost conversions on the product by making “bug shield” the more prominent term in the site’s content. “It was so clear. One of those terms appeared in the top 10 searched terms and the other term didn’t show up until No. 75,” Vanlaningham says.

While he did not disclose what RealTruck pays for the on-demand site search functionality, he did say it’s been so effective it’s viewed within the company as a marketing expense and accounted for about 15% of the marketing budget in its first year of implementation.

Part of the reason retailers are getting more value from site search data is that vendors are making it easier to retrieve and analyze that data. Vanlaningham, for example, says that this kind of information wasn’t as available through the site search tool the company used previously.

Similarly, the web site of Steiner Tractor Parts recently graduated from the site search functionality bundled into its original e-commerce platform to technology from SLI Systems Inc., for which it pays about $30,000 annually. Under the old system, the only information it could obtain from site search was the top 100 most-searched terms. But now it mines a wealth of information from site search that it’s feeding back into content development for the site.

“For instance, our customers might type in something like ‘How do I convert from 6 volt to 12 volt?’ This provides us with an opportunity to write an article about this topic and have it presented in future search results,” says Elizabeth Gross, director of e-commerce.

Expanded results

Another SLI customer, CruiserCustomizing.com, has gone a step further to include user-generated content, such as photos and videos, in site search results. SLI technology automates that process by grabbing content relevant to search queries from RSS feeds originating at Cruiser Customizing’s community site and feeding it into search results along with other informational content and product listings. According to Tammie McKenzie, director of marketing at the retailer, visitors who access this content on the site have a conversion rate 3% higher and a basket size 10% higher than the site average.

Other retailers have used data from site search to refine merchandising. Endeca and Thanx Media client Ergo In Demand, a web-only retailer, recently noticed that the customers drawn to its ergonomic office furniture and accessories were also starting to search for “green” products. The retailer responded by creating a new product landing page within search that allows shoppers to search for environmentally friendly products across multiple categories.

“The landing page has a splash focusing on different types of green products that we carry—and allows them to start their refinement from there,” says Ergo in Demand president Chad Goldsmith. “Are they looking for recycled products, for renewable products? Then they can look at that specific category. It’s giving them another way to sort and elevates the importance of the category by giving it its own merchandised landing page.”

Ergo In Demand featured the site search-inspired green landing page in a successful e-mail promotion that Goldsmith says produced the highest-ever number of click-throughs and level of engagement, defined by such metrics as time spent on the site and likelihood of a recipient proceeding to purchase rather than returning to search.

“Our green e-mail we did introducing the search landing page for green products saw an 11% increase on our average open rate, a 100% increase on click-throughs and a 79% increase on click to open,” Goldsmith says. “Conversions saw a 100% increase as well.”

Goldsmith already knew from analytics data that consumers who used site search were more likely to buy than those who did not. “So if we can get those customers into search they are much more likely to convert and engage with the web site,” he says.

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