February 1, 2007, 12:00 AM

Treasure hunt

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What’s happening?

In addition to incorporating more product attributes into the search engine database, many retailers are tying search results into their web analytics programs, says Aldrich, the consultant. “Instead of just saying there were 7,000 searches this week, or the most commonly searched item was ‘X,’ they report the conversion rate, for instance, for a particular search or product,” she says. “It’s not just the number of times something happened but the business impact of that.”

That in turn enables retailers to discontinue items that aren’t selling or push items that customers are most likely to purchase.

Jewelry e-retailer Ice.com is using site search and analytics technology to automatically display the top sellers in whatever category a customer is searching, along with all other items in the category. The top sellers list changes as the shopper narrows the search criteria. A customer searching for gold earrings will get a list of the best-selling earrings at the top of the results page, as well as a list of all other gold earrings. If the shopper asks for earrings made of 14-carat white gold, the top sellers list will include only earrings made from 14-carat white gold.

Ice.com uses a site search and analytics system from Celebros to tag every item listed on the site. The system traces every time someone searches for, clicks on or purchases an item. “It’s tracking almost every single action that happens on our site, then feeding it back into the engine, and saying based on this search this is what consumers are looking for,” says Ice.com CEO Shmuel Gniwisch.

This ability to track the best-selling items is particularly crucial to Ice.com because consumers looking for jewelry typically want to buy what’s hot, Gniwisch says. “Consumers want to know what’s selling,” he says. “If we show them what’s new, that doesn’t mean they’re going to buy it. They want to know what other people are buying, so that’s what we try to do.”

Since implementing the site search and analytics system about 1 1/2 years ago, conversion rates at Ice.com, which uses no other merchandising tool, have increased 25% to 50%, depending on the time of year, Gniwisch says.

Happy landing

On Petco.com, the site search engine changes featured products and best sellers as a shopper narrows down a search query. For example, if a customer is searching for red dog apparel, all best sellers and featured items on the landing page will be red. “It intelligently gives the customer recommendations based upon what they already told us their preferences are as they’re shopping,” Lazarchic says. Petco also uses that feature for its specialty stores, such as its free-shipping store. “Anything we apply free shipping to is automatically flagged and automatically sent into the free-shipping store,” he adds.

The site search and merchandising system also enables Petco to cross-sell items to consumers accessing its pet-related content. “We assign attributes to an article the same as we assign attributes to a product,” he explains. So a shopper who is reading an article on housebreaking puppies, he adds, also will see products that have attributes for puppy and housebreaking.

Even searches that produce negative results can prove valuable to a retailer, giving clues about new merchandise to stock. “Let’s say somebody is searching for product ‘X’ or manufacturer ‘Y’ and we don’t have those on our site,” says Allan Dick, general manager at retailer Vintage Tub & Bath, which uses site search and merchandising technology from Nextopia Software Corp. “We’re going to start considering bringing those products on our site because we’re obviously attracting traffic for them.”

That’s been the case at Gardeners.com, where the word “fountain” consistently lands among the top 10 internal search terms. “People are coming to our web site and searching for fountains, yet fountains aren’t a very robust category for us,” says Max Harris, director of e-commerce at America’s Gardening Resource Inc. “It’s actually been a catalyst for our merchandising teams to source a certain product to put in the catalog or create some online-only offers.”

Many retailers also are using site search to drive marketing and promotions. “If someone does a search for chocolate chip cookies, we’ll give them a few different banners-perhaps a branded banner for Mrs. Fields cookies, a special banner offering a discount on a certain cookie gift basket or a general site-wide banner,” Lituchy says.

At Petco, different ads rotate based on where the customer is on the site. Shoppers searching for dog apparel see banner ads for dog items on the results page while shoppers looking for cat toys see ads for cat-related items. While implementing Petco.com’s site search engine, vendor Endeca created preset templates with different zones for content. Merchandise managers go into a template and write a rule for what ad content should appear when a certain search word is used.

Petco also is improving its site search experience by enabling customers to determine how many items they want to see displayed on a page. Customers can select the display of as few as six search results to as many as 50 per page. They also can choose either a list or grid view of the products. “Some customers prefer to see a lot of products above the fold, just seeing a picture. They don’t care about information,” Lazarchic says. “Other customers really want to see a description as they’re browsing for products.”

The very latest

The trend to add more analytical tools to site search is continuing. Mercado last month introduced Mercado 4.0, which integrates metrics such as conversion rates, customer reviews, inventory levels and product freshness. It uses web analytics data from Coremetrics Inc., Fireclick (a division of Digital River Inc.) and Omniture Inc., and customer reviews and ranking information from vendors such as Bazaarvoice Inc. and PowerReviews.

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