July 31, 2009, 12:00 AM

The Right Path

While it’s tempting to favor products merchants want to move, site search is most effective when relevancy rules.

Type “Nike” in the site search box on eBags.com, click on search, and what comes up? A page with no site search results.

If that seems counterintuitive, think again. What eBags merchandising staff members have done is create a landing page for shoppers searching for Nike bags. On the left, the page shows a big image of colorful Nike bags, a paragraph about the brand, a summary of the brand’s quality based on ratings by eBags customers, a few Nike bag specials, a couple of videos on Nike products, and an e-mail alert sign-up for Nike products.

On the right are the three key areas of the page containing guided navigation that enables a shopper to refine his search to find better results. A click on “Gym Bags” brings up a page with, yes, site search results-17, to be precise. And then the shopper can click on other refinements such as color, price, material, best sellers, new arrivals and top rated to reconfigure and hone the site search results until they get to the shortest list possible.

“One of our greatest strengths can also be a weakness: We have 550 brands and 43,000 bags,” says Peter Cobb, co-founder and senior vice president at eBags Inc., which uses site search software from Endeca Technologies Inc. “We have to find ways to bring the right products forward to the customer as quickly as possible to eliminate the customer having to click through page after page of site search results. Site search with guided navigation and refinement allows us to quickly determine for shoppers the options they have and in turn minimize the number of pages they must search through to find the perfect bag.”

Cobb is very pleased with the technology’s results. For example, eBags last month integrated into its site search a laptop bag finder tool for customers that is driving a 10% increase in conversion on the bags.

Results from results

Other retailers that use a blend of site search and guided navigation also are pleased with how the technology helps shoppers and boosts business. Century Novelty Co. Inc. averages an 800% return every month on its monthly $2,500 site search fee, and Abt Electronics Inc. reports an increase in sales of nearly 10% attributable to its site search technology and strategy.

These kinds of results combined with the intuitive nature of guided search, experts say, are driving more e-retailers to let consumers lend a hand during site search. It’s true some merchants are experimenting with tweaking site search results behind the scenes by pushing high-margin or high-inventory products to the top of site search results. However, many others say no fiddling with results: Focus on relevancy and getting customers to the product they want, not the product the retailer wants to sell.

Hence the focus by e-retailers as diverse as eBags, Century Novelty and Abt Electronics on letting shoppers do the refining. After all, many shoppers go directly to site search upon arriving at an e-retailer’s home page, so it better work, and work well, to make a potent first impression.

“The search box is where customers initiate a dialogue with you. They put forth effort to tell you what they want; they’re not just clicking here and there,” says Susan Aldrich, senior vice president and a senior analyst who specializes in site search at consulting firm Patricia Seybold Group. “This is your opportunity to connect them with everything they want.”

Like eBags, Century Novelty uses site search algorithms that focus on relevancy, which factor in the number of times a keyword is mentioned in product descriptions and details along with the number of times a product has been clicked on by other customers over time. This relevancy measure creates the initial list of site search results at the novelty retailer.

In addition, on that first page of site search results are numerous boxes containing several ways to refine the site search results. That’s the best way to get a shopper to precisely what they’re looking for, says Ian MacDonald, vice president and general manager at Century Novelty, which uses site search software from SLI Systems Inc.

Since implementing the hosted, software-as-a-service technology along with the guided strategy, Century Novelty reports an average 800% return every month on its monthly $2,500 fee, a total of $20,000 in sales.

“First and foremost our goal is to get shoppers to what they’re looking for,” MacDonald explains. “They can sort by price, by newest item, they can see what’s most relevant versus what sells the most-the consumer using our site search can sort by what’s relevant to them.”

Which is why Century Novelty and many other e-retailers avoid manipulating site search results-creating rules in site search systems that, for instance, automatically move up in search results a product with a higher profit margin above a product more relevant to the customer’s keywords.

“More often than not, that’s going too far. That’s too much manipulation,” MacDonald says. “Relevance and click popularity is the best gauge, then allow shoppers to refine a list from there. If you’re inserting other factors like profit margin, the results may skew away from what the customer really wants. Two years of customers clicking have told us which rubber ducks are the ones people really want.”

Ken Au, e-commerce director at Abt Electronics Inc., which uses site search software from Nextopia Software Corp., agrees.

“For instance, if you factor in products with high inventory levels, you have got to be very careful,” says Au, who pays $2,500 a month for the software-as-a-service system and reports an increase in sales of nearly 10% attributable to what he describes as site search technology significantly better than its predecessor. “You may have a large number of 9-inch televisions from one manufacturer, and you likely wouldn’t want them to pop up on top on a search for ‘TV.’”

Click popularity will show that the clear majority of shoppers are researching or buying much larger TVs; consequently, showing tiny portable TVs on top of search results is counterproductive, he explains.

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