June 26, 2008, 12:00 AM

Site Search

Improving site search pays off in many ways

Almost every e-retailer lets visitors search for products-94% offer site search, according to a survey of online retailers this year by The E-Tailing Group. And merchants continually strive to improve site search functionality, says Lauren Freedman, president of the research firm.

“Site search is always ranked among the top three initiatives merchants are focused on because we have such a search-oriented culture,” Freedman says. “Existing vendors will continue to evolve what they have and people will continue to invest in it because this is such an important way people use web sites.”

One indication of the ongoing investment is more e-commerce sites allowing visitors to search by attributes, such as color, style, price or brand. In The E-Tailing Group’s 2008 survey 76% of e-retailers offered such advanced search, compared with 72% in 2007.

Fewer merchants, however, were merchandising search landing pages, presenting products with promotions or information about how customers rated the items. Only 75% of online merchants had such landing pages, down from 84% a year ago. Such merchandising can take a lot of work unless a retail site employs a sophisticated site search tool that automates the process, Freedman says.

Fewer returns

It is increasingly common for e-commerce sites to correct consumers’ spelling of terms typed into search boxes. A mystery shopper survey by The E-Tailing Group last holiday season found 61% of sites corrected misspelled phrases, compared with 57% the year before.

Correcting common misspellings with a new site search tool helped The Artful Home, a site that sells the original work of artists, dramatically reduce the number of site searches that produced no results. Besides adding spelling correction, the retailer also connected terms so that, for instance, a visitor who typed in “pottery” would see results that previously appeared only when a shopper typed in “ceramics.” The changes resulted in a decrease from 30% to 8% in searches that produced no results.

Conversion rates went up by about a third soon after Fabric.com implemented new site search technology last fall that allowed shoppers to narrow their searches by fabric width, color, designer, choice and other attributes. In addition, the e-retailer studied keyword searches and analyzed which ones were typical of new visitors; for those searches the search results page presented a banner with a special offer for new customers. “By implementing special first-time customer promotions like special shipping offers we are now getting about 25% more new customers every day,” says Laurie Eady, director of marketing.

Improved site search can not only increase sales, but also reduce returns. That was the experience at StylinTrucks.com, which sells truck accessories. As part of deploying improved site search technology, the online and catalog retailer added to each of its 100,000 SKUs such attributes as color, brand, finish and what year of truck the item fits. Returns decreased 2%, suggesting customers are better able to identify the items that can be installed on their trucks, says Roy Bielewicz, director of Internet marketing.

Preparing alternative offers

Sometimes all it takes is making the search box easier to find to produce positive results. After studying the sites of major online retailers, Jason Dupus, president of home furnishings retailer Black Forest Décor, increased the size of his site’s search box by 72% and moved it from the right side to the center. The result was a 34% bump in conversion rate.

One more tip: As they prepare for the holiday shopping rush, online retailers should make sure their site search systems are prepared for a popular product like the latest iPod to go out of stock, says Gene Alvarez of research and consulting firm Gartner Inc. If that happens, shoppers are likely to abandon the site unless the e-retailer is prepared to present alternative items likely to appeal to those searching for iPods.

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