May 12, 2014, 5:01 PM

It’s not either search or personalization: Search is personalization

Every time a customer searches for a color, a style, an article of clothing, a bargain item, or narrows a search or leaves a web page, he or she is telling you something very important about themselves. Why aren’t e-retailers paying attention?

I’ll let you in on a secret that I learned from a couple taking a shopping break to sip coffee outside Burberry in the dazzling sunshine at the Stanford Shopping Center in Silicon Valley.

As hard as online retailers are trying, many aren’t listening to their customers. And they do try hard. Some fret over improving search. Some fret over personalization. Some wonder which is more important; which offers a better boost to the bottom line.

But here’s what they’re missing: Search is personalization. Search is where personalization begins. Every time a customer searches for a color, a style, an article of clothing, a bargain item, or narrows a search or leaves a web page, he or she is telling you something very important about themselves. Yes, themselves.

Search is incredibly personal, idiosyncratic, quirky even. In a way, we are what we want.

So, how did I get all that from Xiao Ting and Justin Joyce over a cup of coffee? After all, the husband and wife weren’t even shopping online. They’d journeyed to the brick-and-mortar mall to search for wardrobe upgrades for Ting, who’s about to graduate from Stanford University with an advanced degree in clinical psychology.

When Joyce, a 27-year-old sales operations guy for a software security company, talked to me about his shopping experience, he described a problem that the Internet was made to solve.

“It’s a needle-in-the-haystack thing,” he said of shopping. “You need to find the right product at the right price.”

So why? Why drive to the mall, park, wander around looking for your needle? Why not use the Web, where you can slice and dice by price, color, size, style etc. “The Internet is not very personal,” Joyce explained. “Here, you see a person. You can talk to them. Compared to online shopping, where you get something in a box that shows up.”

As far as Joyce is concerned you could absolutely kill it on search; you could be the search king of the world, but without that personal touch, without a sense that the retailer knows him, you can forget about it. And Ting? Why does she prefer the mall?

“For me it’s nice to shop with my husband,” she says. “He’s the one picking out clothes for me,” and OK, she said, paying for them. (Student, remember?) But think of Ting shopping online. When she visits a site, she wants to be shown items that suit her, the way her husband shows her items that suit her. Why can’t online retailers be more like her husband?

In part, because it’s hard. Personalization is easy to talk about. It’s easy to say that you do it, because it’s one of those terms, like “green energy,” or “cloud computing;” one of those terms that’s squishy enough that you can do it, depending on how you define it. Let’s face it, anyone can say they have a “self-driving car,” because, put a brick on the accelerator, and practically any car will go by itself. But it’s where it goes that really matters.

In fairness, ever-accelerating advances in technology have raised the bar. Algorithms, machine learning, natural-language processing, all mean that the old forms of personalization just aren’t going to cut it. Retailers can now use the signals that shoppers send when they search and navigate the Web to build a personalized experience. But for the most part, that’s not happening.

“Search is a conversation,” Jeremy Hull, iProspect’s director of bought media, told me recently. “And it’s right now, and traditionally, a very short conversation, because the user says something and you respond to it. But the more you can tie secondary signals into it, the more you can infer the kind of real-time need, the more you can respond and be listening and give them an answer.”

It wasn’t long ago, that the state of the art for personalization meant signing into a website and listing preferences—sort of a do-it-yourself shopping experience. And if you wanted improved personalization, well, that was up to you. Then, and to this day, retailers and others, focused on segments of consumers—people who live in the same region, or whose purchase histories show some similarities.

The prevailing thought by many online retailing and marketing professionals is to put you into segments. These people are from this geography, and those in that, meaning that there could be thousands or millions of people in each segment that you treat all the same.

That’s not personalization; personalization should be one-to-one.

The potential upside for retailers that get it right can be seen in shoppers like Monica Buzea, a mom from Sunnyvale who was as harried at Stanford Shopping Center as Joyce and Ting were relaxed. She’d made a rare trip to the mall with her six-year-old son and her four-year-old daughter, who were alternately tugging on her arms and bounding around like perpetual motion machines.

Unlike the coffee-sipping couple, she prefers to shop online.

“I have the kids with me all the time,” Buzea said. “and it’s horrible to shop with them.”

And yes, she does notice when sites treat her like a valued customer. Amazon-owned Zappos, for instance, where she’s shopped for years, knows what she likes and doesn’t bother showing her what she doesn’t.

“They know me by now and the style I’m looking for in shoes,” she says. “They never show me pumps. I never buy pumps, because I never wear pumps. They know what to advertise to me.”

True personalization results in a unique experience for each shopper. Personalization is everything that the user has done on your web site: products they looked at; what brands they looked at; what are the colors, the sizes, the categories they were interested in; what are the terms they searched; what did they purchase; which page did they land on; did they come through email, paid or organic? Those are all relevant data at true individual levels and they’re different for me and they’re different for you.

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