April 4, 2007, 12:00 AM


Higher retailer interest and the technology’s ongoing evolution create a robust demand for site search

Online retailers once were content with the search functionality that came with their e-commerce platforms. If it returned results, that was good enough in a time when retailers had many other web site technology investments to make.

Back then, site search technology developers had a hard time convincing e-retailers there was a better way to do business. But now the market has caught up with the vendors and site search is coming into its own as a technology critical to the success of a web site. “Things have changed a lot. There’s a lot more business out there,” says Shaun Ryan, CEO of site search technology developer SLI Systems Inc. “There are a lot more retailers signing on than there were 24 months ago. They have a greater awareness of site search and its increased importance to the success of a web site.”

That increased awareness is true across the board, vendors say. “Site search has become a key priority for almost every size and type of e-retailer,” says Corey Leibow, president and CEO of Mercado Software Inc., developer of site search technology. “Back in January 2005, we were battling with a lot of key initiatives and site search was not a priority. But today, there’s a lot of awareness that site search can be a significant differentiator going into the ’07 holiday season.”

Evolving technology

The reason site search has risen in online retailers’ eyes is they are realizing it is a basic function that consumers expect. “30% of all activity on a web site is search. Search is the way people access information on the web,” says Joe Lichtman, director of product management for site search company FAST Search and Transfer. “It’s what they expect and it’s how they declare their intentions when they come to a retailer’s web site.”

Retailers are paying more attention to site search for another simple reason: Effective site search contributes to higher browser-to-buyer conversion rates. “We continue to see retailers emphasizing conversion rates and looking for ways to enhance the shopping experience to achieve higher rates,” says Larry Harris, vice president and general manager of Progress Software Inc.’s EasyAsk site search unit. “There are many aspects of increasing conversion rates that site search impacts.”

During the years retailers have taken to catch on to the importance of deploying specialized site search technology vs. simply using what comes out of the box with an e-commerce platform, the technology has been evolving. At first, technology developers trumpeted the fact that their site search could make the simple distinction between when a shopper was looking for an iron vs. no-iron slacks.

No sooner was that a form of differentiation among vendors than vendors began developing technology that would allow retailers active control over how the results were displayed. Random or alphabetical lists of results were not good enough. Retailers wanted their highest margin, or best selling, or highest inventory items to show up first. That has become so widespread that the industry has adopted the term “searchandising” to describe the marriage between search and merchandising.

Adding the editorial voice

By now, combined site search and merchandising has become an integral part of the site search experience. “Merchandising tools add editorial voice to search results,” Lichtman says. “It makes the system behave like the best salesperson. If someone in a store is looking for shoes, the salesperson doesn’t just point to the shoe department. He’ll ask what kind of shoes and recommend clothing to go with running shoes. There’s no more effective way to merchandise than with input from shoppers and response. That’s what the best site search does.”

At every step in site search’s evolution, vendors responded with ever more sophisticated technology, until today site search technology is at the heart of successful web sites. “Site search is a core component of how to affect all behavior at a web site,” Leibow says. “If you look at the web eco-system that includes web analytics, rich media, user reviews, all the back-end systems that feed information to the web site, the trigger for understanding all of it is what you learn from site search.”

Indeed, site search has become so crucial to web sites that it is pulling many more web site operations into its orbit. SLI, for instance, offers in addition to site search functionality a navigation function that controls page display, with product attributes shown in a navigation bar even when the user is navigating a site and not searching. On the cosmetics site Ulta.com, for instance, a user clicking on the cosmetics tab gets a nav bar generated by SLI with products sorted by Brand, Sub Brand, Price Range, Application, Product Type and so on. The nav bar looks just like the one she’d get if she had searched on a product.

The key to the success of the nav bar, Ryan says, is the technology has learned from searches which attributes to highlight. “By pairing search and navigation, we provide a consistent look and feel among the pages,” he says. SLI rolled out that feature last October. “We’re still early on with it, but the reaction from retailers has been very positive,” he says.

A single view into other systems

Relating to other systems has become such an important part of the search equation that vendors are providing single-view dashboards or consoles that operate through site search technology but offer views into other systems. Mercado, for one, released a dashboard with its Mercado version 4 that came out in January. It pulls data from other systems such as web analytics and inventory systems and presents it in a single-view format that managers can act on. “It gives merchandisers a tremendous amount of power that they’ve never had before,” Leibow says.

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