March 25, 2003, 12:00 AM

Imperfect queries tank site search at some top e-retailers

A survey of the accuracy of retail sites’ search functions shows most sites fall short in directing shoppers to the right products. But "flexible" handles misspellings, synonyms and more to top 37signal’s list on site search usefulness.

Shoppers’ penchant for misspelling words and entering the wrong product numbers can throw site search for a loop–-but not the top retail sites as determined in a recent survey by Chicago-based web design and usability consultants 37signals.


In a review that rated 25 leading e-commerce sites on how flexibly they were able to handle search queries, the company found that when presented with perfect, error-free search requests, 92% consistently delivered accurate and relevant results. However, search queries that stepped outside strict lines in six tests devised by 37signals produced poorer results. 72% of the sites could not consistently match misspelled search terms with the right product, while 68% offered minimal or no sorting and filtering options to narrow search results lists.


64% weren’t able to consistently match mixed-specification searches to valid results, that is, respond accurately when a search query simply describes a product rather than use the precise description assigned to the product by site operators. 56% of the sites didn’t adequately handle synonyms and related terms, while 56% also was the percentage that provided little or no further direction on "no results found" pages.


"Each of the six tests represents a realistic problem facing customers who use retail site search engines," says Jason Fried, president of 37signals. "They represent typical search experiences and frustrations while trying to find a product at a retail site." Each test was conducted 10 times, aside from the tests of sorting/filtering and "no results found," which were conducted once on each site.


Of the 25 sites reviewed, Lands’ End topped the list, scoring a point for "good" performance in five out of the six tested categories. Lands’ End scored only an "okay" in the sorting/filtering test. Similarly, Petco’s site scored a point for good performance in five out of six, with site performance rating only an "okay" in the "no results found" test.


Some of online retail’s big names were among the lower scorers. The web site Target scored zero overall, rating zero points for "okay" or losing a point for a "poor" performance in most of the tests. The web sites of Best Buy, QVC and Red Envelope each scored a minus 1 overall, while scored a minus 2.


"We mispronounce and misspell product names and model numbers and often get the entire description wrong," says Fried. "Most salespeople are flexible to enough to get us on our way despite these minor errors. And as the top-performing retail sites demonstrate, the best online search engines are just as flexible."


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