April 1, 2005, 12:00 AM


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Although its EasyAsk/Coremetrics set-up can be accessed through a web browser by several product managers, Fingerhut has dedicated a single e-commerce analyst to maintain it as a liaison between merchandise managers and the web site. By toggling back and forth between the Coremetrics and EasyAsk applications on a computer screen, the analyst, Andrew Deikel, can view Coremetrics data that indicate which search results are leading to clicked links and sales or which are producing no or insufficient results due to such reasons as out-of-stock inventory or misspelled search terms. The EasyAsk application also provides similar analytical data, but Fingerhut has chosen to continue using data from the Coremetrics application, which the retailer had installed prior to the EasyAsk application.

"We`ll often start with the Coremetrics data, that`s the easiest place to start," Sidders says. "We`ll take a look at what`s failing from a search standpoint, and why it`s failing. Maybe it`s a search for something that`s out of stock, or something we don`t carry at all."

Because some shoppers will always search for products a retailer doesn`t carry, it`s impossible to get the number of failed searches to zero, but retailers can approach zero by fixing common problems, experts say.

Business rules

Among the easiest problems that Fingerhut has discovered and fixed, for example, were searches that could not produce results for synonyms, plural terms or common misspellings of the names of products it carries. "If a customer searched for `chairs,` they wouldn`t find anything, but if they searched for `chair,` they would," Sidders says. "Our failed-search rates were up to 50% of searches."

Some of the problems producing failed searches were corrected once Fingerhut installed the EasyAsk site search engine, which comes with a built-in ability to handle a broad range of terms, including synonyms and misspellings, that would otherwise result in empty search results. By reviewing the Coremetrics analytical data, Fingerhut could identify remaining problems where search keywords didn`t connect with associated products, then modify the EasyAsk search engine to recognize and produce better results.

Going beyond finding and fixing problems, Fingerhut also applies business rules to the EasyAsk search results for pushing particular inventory. "Sometimes our business needs would outweigh what the Coremetrics data showed, such as when we have 100 digital cameras that we need to move," Sidders says. In that case, Fingerhut could modify the search results for "cameras" queries to make those digital cameras appear higher in the search results.

In addition to producing search results that serve both the interests of shoppers and the business needs of retailers, the search-and-navigation tools also enhance the shopping experience by showing navigation options that help shoppers extend their initial search through related browsing.

If a shopper searches on "Barbie" on eToys.com, which uses Endeca`s InFront site search and navigation tool, for instance, she`ll see not only a list of images and descriptions of products eToys sorted either by best-seller or price, but also sections of specially promoted, related items and a navigation bar that can take her to virtually any of eToys` 8,000 products, says Cummings, the CIO.

By dynamically creating web pages based on a shopper`s search terms, the site search and navigation tool has enabled eToys to replace 80 distinct boutique sections of its site that required extensive time for managing links and content. "In the old way, we practically had to work around the clock to manually maintain boutiques, replacing links to out-of-stock products with links to replacement products," says Brian Bass, director of product development.

With Endeca, the site search and navigation tool automatically removes out-of-stock products from search results pages, eToys says. "Now it`s more like having an unlimited number of boutiques," Bass says, adding that maintaining the Endeca tool takes about eight to 16 hours per week.

Pushing margins

The average cost of licensing Endeca`s InFront tool is $300,000, plus about 15% annual maintenance costs, though the licensing fee varies according to an e-commerce site`s size and performance levels. A small implementation could run about $50,000, while Endeca`s largest customers, who may serve thousands of searches per minute, may spend $1 million or more, an Endeca spokesman says.

EToys displays search-results pages divided into several sections. The basic search results appear in the center and can be ranked by the shopper according to price or best-sellers. A left-side navigation bar presents further options to drill down into the same product category by multiple characteristics such as brand or sub-category. Specially promoted products are listed on the right side of the page, and a banner across the top might offer a view into related content, such as a history of the Barbie doll.

Among the products eToys has promoted in search results are DVDs and accessories in search results for video game consoles. The consoles tend to be popular but low-margin items that generate a lot of searches, so the special promotions let eToys generate profits through sales of the higher-margin DVDs and accessories like mobile console display screens, Bass says.

As retailers continue to learn to use site search to better serve customers and increase sales and profit margins, they`ll also move more into offering search results personalized to each shopper`s behavior, experts say. Combining site analytics and search functions, for example, can let a retailer tailor search results based on where a site visitor came from, says Squire of Coremetrics.

"Retailers are beginning to look at the referring Internet search site, whether it`s Google, AOL or MSN," Squire says. Because each referral site can be shown to deliver types of shoppers with particular spending habits and interests, retailers can modify search results based on the referral site, he adds.

Tailoring results

Retailers are also beginning to use site search from vendors like Mercado to present search results tailored to a shopper`s interests. Mercado`s Commerce Search and Navigation application includes an administrative console that business managers can use to set rules on what search results and cross-selling presentations appear according to information on a shopper`s personal demographics and historical and real-time personal shopping behavior, the recorded interests of other consumers, and the goals of the retailer regarding moving merchandise.

Mercado`s CSN application starts at about $50,000 plus annual maintenance fees, says vice president of sales Bill Martin.

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