August 30, 2012, 11:31 AM

Wal-Mart factors popularity into site search results

Early results show a 10% to 15% jump in shoppers completing purchases, the retailer says.

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Wal-Mart Stores Inc. today announced it has launched a new site search tool on Walmart.com that displays higher in search results items that are selling well, generating buzz on social networks or attracting good reviews.

The search engine’s algorithm now presents results based on the items consumers have recently bought on Walmart.com, the products shoppers are posting about and sharing on Facebook, the products that have received positive reviews, as well as the items that other consumers have searched for and clicked on.

A small team of about 15 people from Wal-Mart’s research lab @WalMartLabs built the tool over the past 10 months, says Sri Subramaniam, @WalMartLabs’ vice president, who oversaw the project.

The technology does a much better job of understanding consumers’ intent, he says. That isn’t surprising given that the first members of the @WalMartLabs team came from Kosmix Corp., which focused on semantics technology, that is, understanding what consumers mean when they enter terms in a search box or post online comments. Wal-Mart acquired Kosmix last year.

The improved search is evident when a consumer searches for terms like “house.” The old search engine would produce results with numerous dog houses, which few consumers actually bought, says Subramaniam. Now, because the search engine’s algorithm considers the items shoppers most often click on, the first results it returns are for DVDs of the TV show “House.”
Wal-Mart says that desktop users have been using the new site search tool, which the retailer calls Polaris, for the past three months. Mobile users have been using it for about a month. The improved results, says Subramaniam, have led to a 10% to 15% jump in the number of sales that result from consumers searching for products.

The retailer has also built 500 to 600 custom landing pages for its most common search terms, such as “bikes.” Those pages feature images for subcategories such as “adult bikes,” “kids bikes,” “bike accessories,” “bike safety” and “exercise bikes” above the results to help shoppers more quickly find what they’re looking for, says Subramaniam. “We want to help them through the purchasing process rather than just return results,” he says.

Subramaniam says that Wal-Mart will continue to refine the site search tool, with plans to integrate the items that shoppers are sharing on Pinterest into the algorithm in the near future.

The site search tool is the most ambitious initiative so far from @WalMartLabs, which the retailer launched last year with the mission of developing web, mobile and social innovations. Earlier efforts have included a tool that enables teachers to digitally submit lists of items they need for their classrooms that parents can buy s on classrooms.walmart.com, and Shopycat, a Facebook application that culls the posts and Likes of a consumer’s friends on the social network to present gift recommendations from Walmart.com and other e-retailers.

@WalMartLabs, which includes both Walmart.com’s mobile and e-commerce platform staff, has about 300 staff members in its offices in Silicon Valley and nearly 200 staffers in a second office it opened this year in Bangalore, India.

Wal-Mart is No. 4 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide.

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