April 29, 2011, 11:52 AM

Talking the Talk

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Electronics e-retailer AbesofMaine.com incorporates review-based navigation at the sub-category level. A consumer browsing the 101 flat-panel TVs the e-retailer sells can open a horizontal window at the top of the results page labeled "click to browse by user feedback." The consumer can then sort the results by user rating, user type, best uses and best features. This lets a TV shopper sort reviews so they can see the most highly rated televisions that consumers cited as having "good connections," for example.

AbesofMaine.com started integrating user reviews as a navigational tool about seven months ago after being approached by both its site search vendor, SLI Systems, and its reviews vendor, PowerReviews, which together presented an integration tool, says Sarah Marcus, the retailer's marketing director. Marcus says 20% of site search users interact with the user feedback browse tool, which is higher than she expected considering consumers have to notice the horizontal header and click to expand it.

Marcus says adding the feature hasn't really cost AbesofMaine.com anything. PowerReviews didn't charge any significant fee to turn on the feature and the increased search volume remains within the range defined by its SLI contract and so does not increase SLI's charges. "We feel that the increased engagement rate of users with our search tool works to our benefit and would be worth a cost anyway," she says. "It has more people using the tools we have, engaging with our brand and with each other."

While e-retailers have some experience adding customer review data to their site search and navigation, they are just beginning to explore the possibilities provided by consumers' growing familiarity with the Facebook Like button that's appearing on more retail sites as well as on the social network itself. The Facebook Like button is a way for Facebook users to indicate they approve of something on the web and share it with their online pals.

One web retailer starting to leverage social media content is VogueWigs.com, which sells women's wigs and accessories. A keyword search for "hair" at the e-commerce site returns more than 1,100 results. Results include the number of Likes each product has collected on the e-retail site and on VogueWigs.com's Facebook page. Buttons in the left-side navigation let a consumer further sort results to show which products feature a YouTube video or have a company-produced Twitter post associated with it.

Jason Wang, VogueWigs.com's president and owner, says his search vendor, Nextopia Software Corp., implemented the Facebook, YouTube and Twitter options on his site in March. It's too early to say if they will have a big impact on conversions, but he's bullish on the prospects. "Once Likes reach critical mass, I can see them being just as important as user reviews," he says. Wang says he's currently redesigning the site to feature these social search elements more prominently.

Sanjay Arora, CEO of Nextopia, says his company introduced the social integration tools in January. He can't say whether Likes will knock popular sort tools like "most popular" or "best-selling" from their perches, but says Nextopia does take them seriously enough to incorporate the social data into its keyword search algorithm that determines display order. He says Nextopia does charge a fee to e-retailers to add the Like button data and the YouTube and Twitter sorting capabilities but describes the fee as nominal. Wang agrees that the features didn't add much to his site search fee.

SLI's Ryan says his company already integrates blog and video content into search results for other e-retailer clients, including Yarn.com and KingArthurFlour.com. "When someone searches, it makes them aware of all the efforts and conversations going on around that term," he says.

Consumer-generated referrals, whether they come in the form of a Like thumbs-up, a five-star user rating or a comment that particular pairs of shoes are suitable for going to church or attending a barbecue, add to the web shopping experience and help consumers find what they want. It's also a way for e-retailers to differentiate their shopping experience, says Aldrich of Patricia Seybold Group. "A merchant wants to give consumers the information they need to make a decision," she says. "If a merchant doesn't, consumers are going to leave. The emotional terms or term on how people use a product are the types of information that they need."


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