August 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Digging for pay dirt

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In addition, shoppers who search on the site spend 10% more than those who don't search, and 50% fewer site visitors abandon site search results pages now compared with before the e-retailer deployed the system, MacDonald says.

SLI also provides a built-in Site Champion tool that automatically saves results pages for highly popular search terms like "pirate party cups." That makes it easier for new site visitors to find the most popular pirate-theme party supplies, he adds, because the products are already grouped together on a single site search results page.

Although the site search technology itself sits on web servers hosted by SLI, the permanent web pages for popular search results sit on a subdomain page, which is an extension of the main domain, such as " search#w=pirate party cups." That feature has also helped boost rankings in Google natural Internet search results, MacDonald says. Having the search term "pirate party cups" included in the subdomain name has helped it get picked up by search engine spiders, which boosts rankings in natural Internet search results. Because the page exclusively shows party cups with pirate themes, Google, for example, views the page as highly relevant for consumers searching for such items, MacDonald says.

The goal for online retailers, of course, is to make it easier for shoppers to find something they'd like to buy, the online equivalent of a store with helpful salespeople. "We're trying to figure out the best way to make that shopping experience better," says Bill Aicher, chief growth officer at, a retailer and publisher of sheet music.

Unlike most retailers, isn't tied to a physical inventory of product SKUs reflected in an online catalog and stored in a warehouse. Instead, it offers a huge selection of downloadable sheet music designed to match music scores with a shopper's needs, such as for playing on a flute, or with a woodwind quartet, solo on a piano, or a piano-vocal-guitar combination. In retail lingo, that's often referred to as offering a long tail of products, enough to satisfy shoppers with specific needs.

For George Gershwin's "Summertime" alone, for example, Musicnotes offers 26 options for downloading the tune's sheet music. Among all composers and music genres, the retailer offers some 250,000 distinct pieces of sheet music and guitar tablature.

To help shoppers find the right notes, Musicnotes uses site search technology from Adobe Systems Inc. With the Adobe Search and Promote system, the retailer can tailor search results to a shopper's personal interests—pushing sheet music for flutes, for instance, to the top of results viewed by a flute player who has logged into the site or whose past activity has been tracked by software cookies. Musicnotes can tailor search results according to information the shopper provides on his music preferences, and by his online purchase history and demographic information. A musician living in New Orleans, for example, may be more likely to be seeking jazz sheet music than someone from Miami.

With Adobe's Test and Target application, Musicnotes conducted A/B tests to see how shoppers would respond to site search results tailored to their preferences. "The conversion rate increased as much as 20% to 30%," Aicher says.

Musicnotes also occasionally runs targeted banners within the Adobe Search and Promote system to help shoppers find special categories. "If someone is looking for Halloween music, we'll show a banner for our Halloween promotional page so they can find more options," Aicher says. But the retailer is careful not to overuse such banners, which can also distract shoppers from what they really want to buy, he adds.

Pushing best sellers

Putting the right products in site search results is also behind increased conversion rates at Betty Mills, which uses site search technology from Celebros Inc. that's designed to understand the full context of a search phrase, rather than just matching specific search terms with words in product titles or descriptions, Hanna says.

A search on for "gray garbage cans under $100," for example, pulls up dozens of waste receptacles that are gray and under $100; the results also include listings of three waste receptacles under $100 that don't clarify the color, and two gray trash can lids without a receptacle. There are no listings for garbage bags or other related items. By comparison, a search for the same phrase, "gray garbage cans under $100," on a site of an Internet Retailer Top 100 online retailer with similar products brings up 29 listings for gray garbage bags, but none for garbage cans or receptacles. A search on that Top 100 site for "garbage cans," however, brings up nearly 900 listings of waste receptacles, many of which are gray.

Going forward, Betty Mills expects its site search results to get even better, Hanna says. The retailer upgraded its e-commerce site earlier this year, and as part of the improvements plans to upgrade to Celebros' new ConversionPro V8 site search system. That technology, which includes a more user-friendly administrative interface that doesn't require assistance from I.T. staff, makes it easier for the retailer's merchandising and marketing staffs to configure site search results to promote related and higher-margin products, including best-selling products, Hanna says. Celebros says the cost of ConversionPro V8 ranges from about $1,300 per month to $7,000 per month, depending on a retailer's number of unique monthly visitors and number of SKUs.

Online shoppers, of course, are always searching for just the right products at the best price. And as Betty Mills and others have found, site search systems offer new ways to help them along the way.

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