February 27, 2003, 12:00 AM

A competitive market is pushing site search technology to new plateaus

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The next most common enhancement is a merchandising function, which uses business rules to permit merchants to display products they wish to promote based on the retailer’s own criteria. Federated Department Stores Inc.’s Macys.com has doubled conversion rates among search customers using the merchandising function, says Gary Beberman, director of technical research at Macys.com. “There are strong indications that featured products drive a lot of reaction among customers,” he says. Macys.com installed Mercado’s Intuifind product just before the holidays last year. “Previously, search results were based on quality of match and merchants had little ability to display what they thought was important or to downplay what they thought was less important,” Beberman says. “Now we are able to allow merchandising and other criteria to influence the ranking of results.” Besides merchandising considerations, Macys.com can display products based on inventory level or best sellers, for two examples.

Pointing customers to other paths either by offering options or by presenting merchandise the retailer wants to promote is crucial, Manning says. “The basic problem with search engines is that what they’re being asked to do is beyond them,” he says. “So you give the best answer you can, then show customers the menu structure.”

He cautions, however, that while merchandising is important and becoming more widespread, retailers have to approach that function carefully. “You have to make sure that results aren’t driven totally by business rules so you end up where you started-presenting merchandise that the customer isn’t interested in,” he says.

Typically, merchandising rules are applied after the search results are calculated, retailers and vendors say. So, for instance, a search on skirts may display high up the skirts of any length that the retailer wants to promote, but a search on mid-length skirts won’t show shorter or longer skirts that the retailer wants to promote.

The third dimension

Now that retailers are used to the search, browse and merchandising functions that search products offer, vendors are starting to promote analysis of the data that the search products gather. Although some vendors have incorporated analytics into their products for some time, they are only now beginning to promote it to retailers. “It’s the third dimension of site search,” Manning says. “It’s important to know such information as how many times did a query come up with no results.”

That information is important not just so a retailer knows where the database needs repair, or the merchandising mix altered, but also as a merchandising tool. “If you sell clothes, but a lot of people are searching on footwear, you either need to add footwear or make it clear upfront that you don’t sell footwear. That’s the kind of information that analysis of search results can tell you,” Manning says.

Apparel retailer Blair Corp. sets a lot of store by the analytics portion of search products. “It’s another lens through which we can look at the customer experience,” says Dave Edwards, operations manager for Blair.com.

Blair.com employs the EasyAsk search product. Vice president and general manager of e-commerce Jeff Parnell says Blair is looking into adding EasyAsk’s analytics enhancement. “We’re excited about the functionality we’ve seen,” Parnell says. Blair has not made a commitment to the service yet, but Parnell says, “The ability to drill down into a lot of different areas is appealing.” While analysis of search data is not new, automated analysis and presentation are new, he says. “We’ve all got web logs,” Parnell says. “The issue is how to get to the data when you want a quick snapshot of what’s happening. This is a more sophisticated approach to get at the data.”

Similarly, Mercado says it is working on refining its search stream analysis, although it will not release details about refinements until this month.

While the search products are becoming more sophisticated about allowing merchants to showcase products and understand how customers use the site, search technology vendors are starting to develop more uses for their technology that go beyond simply delivering product results to consumers. EasyAsk, for one, has developed a My Store product that allows customers to create search files, then save those for future use. So, for instance, a shopper might create a search file that would return results when seeking educational toys for a 5-year-old boy. The customer could save the search criteria in the My Store section of a retail site. When the customer accesses the file later, it will automatically search the retailer’s database for in-stock products that meet the criteria. None of EasyAsk’s clients has installed the technology yet, although product manager Steve Morse says a couple are interested.

In addition, search vendors are promoting use of their products for purposes other than site search. John Lewis Direct, a division of the John Lewis Partnership, a £4 billion a year U.K.-based retailer, for instance, has installed Mercado’s Intuifind product in its call centers to help reps answer customers’ questions and is using it on its web site to help customers find information about policies, such as returns and exchanges. John Lewis Direct says installation in the call center has reduced the average call time from seven minutes to two minutes. Installation on the web site has reduced the number of customer inquiry calls by about 5%, says Robert Smith, director of IT for John Lewis Direct. He says John Lewis expects to reduce those calls by as much as 30%.

No dominator, yet

And then there are the small guys. Probably nothing is so indicative of the state of the market for site search than the fact that no large vendors control it yet. S.L.I. in early February hired a California-based sales rep as part of its efforts to crack the U.S. Shaun Ryan, CEO, says what differentiates S.L.I.’s search technology is that it learns from customer searches and moves products higher in rankings based on click-throughs. “It makes a measurable difference to the relevance of rankings,” he says.

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