September 28, 2005, 12:00 AM

Power Up

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Backcountry also uses site search data to recruit new vendors. It shows to targeted vendors whose merchandise it doesn’t yet carry a printout of all the failed searches on for that vendor’s products. "In some cases, those lists are in the thousands," says John Bresee, president. "You can tell vendors that you think the site has value, but there is nothing as convincing as bringing in the data and saying, ‘Here is the number of times people were looking for you on our site, but they bought your competitor instead.’"

More utility

Site search will have still greater utility for Backcountry in a few weeks with the planned launch of expanded search functionality that has the power to span all six sites. The idea behind the concept, which is called fall-through search, is that when a search on Backcountry produces no results or only a few results, the results listings will include the display of Backcountry’s other catalogs, identified as the company’s sister sites, and a few results from each. Shoppers can either click on those links to get to a sister site, or stay on Backcountry’s site, if they choose.

"Search on your site is the area where the most innovation is going on," says Bresee. "And it’s not about which provider has the best out-of-the-box search, but which one has the best professional service team that is going to work with you, quarter after quarter, to improve it."

Site search provider Mercado Software has refined closed loop merchandising around site search in three core areas and automated much of it. Customer provides an example of how Mercado’s solution incorporates a feature called dynamic relevancy. "Type in women’s tennis shoes, and maybe 300 SKUs could come up. Equally weighted, with the same relevancy, that kind of information is not really useful to the average customer," says Bryan Surles, director of systems engineering at Mercado. Mercado’s tool breaks the tie by ranking the order of search results based on analytic data, such as conversions, gathered on the back end, meaning that the most popular shoes bubble up to the top of the listing. "That ties directly into increasing your conversion rate because it makes it more likely that someone is going to find those shoes, like them and buy them" says Surles.

Surles adds that what constitutes the most popular shoes changes every time the index is rebuilt, based on new data about conversions. Those change can occur as often as the retailer wants. But it doesn’t make sense to make those adjustments to search results in real time because that wouldn’t allow the retailer to see trends. "So every night, we take the web analytics report and repopulate search results based on what has been the most popular shoes in the trailing 30 to 90 days, tie that back to our relevancy ranking algorithms and optimize," he says.

More than algorithms

Conversions are just one element the tool can tie into site search results. "Search and merchandising need to be based on more than the fantastic algorithms we and our competitors have in our products," says Corey Leibow, CEO of Mercado. "We absolutely need to get to the next level by making use of real life factors such as buyer behavior and business drivers that we can now access in real time, over a period of time, including things such as profit margin and inventory levels, and put them into the business rules in an automated fashion."

Along those lines, another element of Mercado’s search solution, dynamic refinement, narrows a site’s left-side navigation tree according to analytic data and business rules in the same automated way. A third leg of the product can optimize the creation of site search landing pages based on the results of multivariate testing. Coupled with analytics results, the feature lets brand managers track test results over time, determine the best combination of page elements and with the click of a button, turn that combination into an actual landing page for specific search terms.

Endeca Technologies Inc. has developed an engine that can pull in data from its reporting tools developed for retail, which show how visitors interact with search, navigation, and merchandising on the site, as well as clickstream analysis. Though it has a partnership with Coremetrics Inc., is also integrates with other analytics providers. The engine can also pull data from other systems such as financial data; for example, which products have the highest profit margin. The combination is the basis of dynamic merchandising rules that can drive the activities of search, guided navigation and merchandising functions on the site in an integrated way that’s come to be called "searchandising."

Much bigger

Rich Stendardo, Retail Solutions Manager at Endeca, offers an example of how retailers can employ that functionality to meet business goals: If Home Depot cuts a new deal with supplier Delta Faucets, for instance, it could easily build a merchandising rule that would cover every search page on which Delta faucets appear, so as to feature the top-selling Delta faucets. Stendardo points out that Endeca’s engine can pull information that fits into templates, which puts the ability to change search and merchandising rules into the hands of business managers through Endeca’s Web Studio. A second Endeca studio provides added tools for IT staff and developers.

Search was once a discrete function on a web site with one role: to help shoppers get to the products they were looking for. And while that’s still uppermost in how consumers may understand search, behind the scenes, online retailers understand it’s something much bigger. Recast from passive guidepost to active merchandising and marketing tool and paired with the new power of web analytics, it’s a key part of "a whole-system view of visitor behavior, from the initial acquisition by a site, all the way through site search to conversion," Kusmer says.

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