January 31, 2008, 12:00 AM

Finding Gold

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Lavu describes a site search refinement Macys.com added last year via Mercado Software, its site search provider of the past eight years. The e-commerce site had been using static rules to order the sequence of search results. “Now we are getting more into real-time data that suggests what the sequence should be,” he says.

All in the family

Macys.com applies business rules that order search results dynamically according to the requirements of individual families of businesses within the company. For example, if a shopper searches for Polo Ralph Lauren shirts, a rule can order the sequence of search results based on the rate of conversion of shirts or their freshness in inventory. Site search on another family of products might present results according to product margins or depth in inventory. “It’s all data driven, with a real-time assessment of the data,” Lavu says.

This real-time use of data has helped Macys.com improve conversion. Though he wouldn’t disclose numbers, Lavu says Macys.com is experiencing a higher rate of conversion since it started more dynamically applying business rules to site search. With search now producing a much higher conversion rate than browsing, Macy’s expects to build on that with a new guided navigation approach it’s working on with Mercado, one that blends search and browsing.

It uses Ajax technology, which speeds shoppers’ ability to filter search results by attribute because it does not require a page reload to display a fresh set of results. A search on the site for men’s dress shirts, for example, might produce a hundred or more results, requiring shoppers to page through all of them. The new site search functionality will enable a shopper to filter those hundreds of results immediately by attributes such as brand and color. Layered over each refinement will be whatever business rules have been applied to the display of those products.

“Because we will be relying on the site search technology for browsing, and we can use real data, the results set and the sequencing of those results become very automated, very dynamically,” he says. Lavu expects the search/browse combination to roll out at Macys.com by summer.

That will make site search at Macys.com look a bit different. Other new developments in site search, however, can add dramatically different visual elements. In October TigerGPS.com, for example, dropped its original homemade site search solution and implemented technology from Nextopia Software Corp. In December it was among the first of Nextopia’s retailer customers to add to its baseline site search functionality-which includes features such as the ability to merchandise within search results-a new module called a search cloud.

The search cloud, accessible through a link on the home page, appears on the site as a large field that displays a mass of text-model names and numbers, brand names, product and part numbers, and other terms searched on the site. The larger the size of the text of a term in a search cloud, the greater the number of site searches the term has received. So a search cloud provides a graphical recommendation of what products are popular.

The type size of a term-and whether or not that term is included in the cloud-changes as data on what’s being searched is updated daily or weekly. Nextopia’s technology determines the popularity of search terms by adding keyword searches entered in the site’s search box and clicks on the same terms in the cloud. These cloud clicks are, in effect, searches, as they lead to results pages with product listings.

While the search cloud shows what’s popular, so do customer reviews that appear on the site. The cloud, however, provides something different. “Product reviews are a valuable tool. They’re good once you narrow what you want down to a few choices,” TigerGPS.com president Derek Kleinow says. “But if you’ve never owned a GPS device before and have no idea of what to look for, you are not going to start by reading reviews of hundreds of products.”

A silver lining

With the search cloud in place for a few months, TigerGPS.com has begun compiling data on how many shoppers have engaged the feature and the cloud’s effect on conversion. Even without complete data, Kleinow is happy with the cloudy days. “We think it’s valuable,” he says, “to give our customers tools to help them find the right products.”

Search clouds are one step in the direction of visually enhancing site search results. Technology vendor One on One Ads Inc., though, takes visualizing site search results to an even greater height. It has developed an offering that activates a video of a salesperson who walks out onto a site search results web page; the salesperson speaks to the shopper, delivering a short sales pitch on the product and offering a coupon, which is displayed onscreen for click-through online or printing.

One on One Ads produces the videos for retailers. It is paid by companies that sell products through the retailers. It’s a cost-per-click model in which One on One Ads and the retailer share fees paid by vendors every time someone activates a coupon, which thus produces an advertising revenue stream for the retailer. Or, a retailer can buy One on One Ad’s technology at a fixed cost-per-thousand fee. The company is working with a major retailer and consumer electronics maker, whose names it will not disclose, on deployments of the video salesperson linked to site search results.

Retailers are looking for and getting more out of site search. The tighter connection to web search, the more rigorous use of data on the back end to sequence results, the changing look of site search results pages and other tactics all have a common goal: to shorten a customer’s path between looking for the right product and finding it. Retailers that do not make effective use of site search tools and functionality ultimately will lose out to those that do, some experts say. This is what’s keeping many Internet retailers focused on refining site search.

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