July 30, 2003, 12:00 AM

Site Search Solutions

Online shopping is a hunting, not a browsing, expedition, so getting the right product in front of customers at the right moment is crucial.

By now, few online retailers doubt the importance of site search. Enough retailers have spoken publicly about the benefits they’ve derived-mainly in improved conversion rates-from improved site search. And the analysts and consultants have backed them up with research.

And so, the real question becomes: Which site search technology to choose. The answer to that question is complicated by the fact that more than 100 vendors offer site search technology, according to Forrester Research Inc. And they’re all offering their own approaches to what makes for effective site search. “The search vendors chase the same sales opportunities, but that’s about all they have in common,” says Forrester’s report “Grading Search Platform Hopefuls.”

The nature of the average consumer user compounds retailers’ search problem. The typical users of search at a retail site fall into the lowest categories for subject matter expertise and search skill in a quadrant devised by Forrester.

Declining satisfaction

The vast majority-82%-of visitors to a retail site use site search, with 34% of visitors turning to search as their first activity at a site, according to Jupiter Research Inc.’s Jupiter Consumer Survey, with 48% turning to search if they can’t find what they want by browsing. The rest-18%-rarely or never use search, Jupiter says. Yet in spite of the importance of search as an introduction to a site’s content, 85% of consumers are dissatisfied with the search experience.

Furthermore, according to the Jupiter survey, significantly fewer customers today than a year ago are rating their site-search experiences as effective or very effective. In Jupiter’s latest survey, less than half the respondents from the year before rated site search very effective-8% in the November 2002 survey vs. 19% in a year-earlier survey. A third fewer respondents rated site search effective-30% vs. 47% (see chart).

The answer to improving the site-search experience, according to Jupiter: “Reunify search and navigation.” And that’s exactly what the leading search technology providers are doing today. “The biggest trend that we’ve seen is companies turning to faceted classification in which you begin with keyword search but then you build navigation categories on the fly,” says Matthew Berk, senior analyst of Jupiter Research.

Such technology, also known as search-and-navigation or search-and-browse, allows retailers to employ merchandising tactics as a means of increasing sales. Customers search on a word, and, along with search results, receive a display of products sorted by other criteria. “It takes advantage of retailers’ merchandising capacity,” Berk says.

Corraling searchers

That merchandising capacity is as important in selling online as it is in selling offline. It’s become a truism of the web that online shopping is a hunting activity rather than a browsing activity, with most shoppers looking for products they’ve already made up their minds to buy. But that doesn’t mean retailers can’t tempt them with other merchandise while customers are searching. “80% of shoppers know what they’re looking for,” Berk says. “But retailers can’t overlook the opportunity to corral them into a category where they can show them things they didn’t know about.”

In fact, Atomz Corp. reports that its Atomz Promote enhancement to its Atomz search product has been well received. With about 45 Fortune 500 companies using its Atomz search product, as well as smaller companies, Atomz created its Atomz Promote product a year ago to allow retailers to merchandise related products-or simply provide more detailed information-along with search results.

At Palm.com, for instance, a shopper searching on the game Monopoly will get not only results displayed in typical search format, but also an image of a Monopoly game with the option to click for more information or to buy. Now as many as 20 companies are using the Promote product.

Seth Brenzel, Atomz’ director of marketing, says the Promote function has increased some users’ conversion rates by a factor of two or three over normal conversion rates. “It’s a powerful marketing tool,” he says. “Many of our users see it as a competitive advantage.”

Atomz sells its search services on a subscription basis at $15,000 a year for the search function and $10,000 a year for the Promote function.

The Promote product was an offshoot not just of the search function, Brenzel, says, but also of Atomz’ content management product as well. “We took our expertise in search and our content management capability, which made a suite of separate but related products, and tied them together,” Brenzel says.

Most search vendors, though, still concentrate on making the search function better, with some reporting that the search-and-navigate function is a lower priority for retailers. “We offer it because in RFPs that’s one of the check boxes that everyone says they want, but it’s really just a work-around to a sophisticated ability to tolerate variations in spelling,” says Stefanos Damianakis, president of search technology developer Netrics Inc.

Netrics, which recently announced that ShopLifestyle.com and Prints.com have adopted the Netrics search technology, continues to concentrate on correcting customers’ spelling and input errors. “It’s not just keywords, but key phrases in product names and descriptions,” Damianakis says. Especially at a site like Prints.com, such spelling correction is key, he says. “Artists’ names are tricky and the names of artworks can be confusing because shoppers can’t always remember the word order of a title,” Damianakis says.

Licensing of effective site search technology can start at $50,000 for a low-end product on a small site and go above $1 million, Berk reports. But Harley Manning, analyst with Forrester Research, encourages retailers to look for deals. “As with all software, negotiation is quite possible,” Manning says. “There’s an overpopulation of search vendors right now. And it’s a zero sum game; if you buy from one you’re not going to buy from another.”

In spite of the obvious value of site search technology-retailers as diverse as NeimanMarcus.com and TowerRecords.com have reported significant value from improving their site search-the state of the economy and some retailers’ inability to prove the value of site search to their own senior management have prevented broader investment in the technology.

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