January 2008 - Searching for Sales

The search feature on an e-commerce site can be a retailer’s best sales tool-or a waste of the shopper’s time. Here’s the difference.

By Jack Gordon

Some shoppers come to an e-commerce website knowing exactly which products they want to see. Others know what they want, but not necessarily what to call it: a wristwatch to wear while scuba diving, or one of those cheesecake-baking pans (“springform?”) that opens with a lever on the side. And some people come simply to browse-gift shoppers, for instance, uncertain of the item they want.

The first two types may go straight to the site’s search box and type in the product’s name, or their best guess at it. Browsers will rely more on the site’s navigation features-the categories and options offered to them on menus-though they, too, might use the search feature later in the game, once they have begun to zero in on a target.

An online retailer’s odds of making a sale depend heavily on the quality of those search and navigation experiences, and the integration between the two. The same applies to upselling and cross-selling. What happens after a shopper types something into the site’s search box and hits “enter”? That is a big-money question. And a number of specialized firms have sprung up to help retailers answer it.

These companies supply software or hosted services designed to optimize the merchandising power of e-commerce sites. They do this by providing search and navigation features, which, they say, are far superior to the basic search software that comes bundled with e-commerce platforms or that can be downloaded free from the Internet. “Searchandising” is gaining some traction as a descriptive name for what they do, but most use terms like “dynamic search and navigation.”

“I think you’d find that none of the top 200 or so online retailers use the rudimentary search software supplied with their e-commerce platforms. They all use us or one of our competitors,” says Joe Lichtman, vice president of retail strategies for Fast, of Needham, Mass., whose clients include Best Buy, Dell Computers and IBM.

According to Lichtman, research shows that about 30 percent of online shoppers expect to use a search box to interact with a website. People predisposed to search tend to convert better, he says. “They know what they’re looking for, so they’re motivated buyers.” Those people will become loyal to a site that has “good search,” and they’ll avoid a site with an unhelpful search function, he says.

To explain the difference between their services and more basic search engines-or Google, for that matter-optimizers use the metaphor of a shopper who enters a brick-and-mortar department store and asks a sales clerk about a product. No decent salesperson would ever say, “We don’t carry that,” and then walk away without at least offering to show the customer a similar product that is in stock. Yet, that is what happens online whenever a search query produces only a message that says, “No matches found.”

No search on an e-commerce site should ever land a customer at the dead end of a “no results” page, says Sue Chapman, director of merchandising solutions for Mercado Software Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif., among whose clients are Macy’s, William Sonoma and REI. Type “orange Nike sneakers” into the search box on Macys.com, Chapman notes, and you will find that there are none. But you will be offered other relevant choices, including “Nike sneakers” and “orange Nike sports apparel.”

Similarly, if you ask a good salesperson about bed sheets, you won’t simply be pointed to a stack of 1,000 assorted sheets. Instead you’ll be asked about your preferences. Do you care most about price? Color? Brand? Thread count? A search function responding to the term “sheets” should take you to a page offering those kinds of options as navigational choices, Chapman says.

There are many distinctions between rudimentary search and optimized search, but they boil down to a basic question, Chapman says: “When I come to your site, are you merchandising to me right off the bat?”

The point of optimized search and navigation is twofold. First, it should be as simple as possible for shoppers to find what they’re looking for. Second, search results should prominently display products that the shopper is actually most likely to buy or that the retailer would most like to sell. These might be the highest-margin items, overstocked goods, seasonal or holiday products-whatever.

Familiar text-search engines, such as Google, sort and present results strictly by “relevancy.” That makes sense in a document-search context, but not on an e-commerce site, says Larry Harris, vice president and general manager of Progress EasyAsk of Bedford, Mass.

“You get a lot of junk in the results set,” Harris points out. “‘Shorts’ can give you short-sleeved shirts. ‘Dress’ can give you dress shoes. The traditional approach has been to sweep the junk under the rug by listing the unlikely stuff last.”

Clients such as Land’s End, Talbots and Sony don’t want a junk-last results list, Harris says. “They want all the results to be things they’re proud of. ‘Sweaters’ should mean sweaters, not a list of 1,000 hits with jeans on the last page.”

What’s more, he says, a search engine designed to sort matches only by relevancy can’t sort them by other factors, such as popularity or price, or what’s on sale, or what can be delivered by Christmas. Dynamic search software can be instructed to sort results by any number of variables and to follow many different rules. “We know from research that if you sort by popularity-putting the most popular sweaters on the first page instead of mixing them throughout the results-you will sell more,” Harris says.

There is more to optimized search than just guiding a shopper efficiently to appropriate products. That’s only the first step toward using search as a merchandising engine, says Brian Rosenblat, marketing solutions manager for Endeca Technologies Inc. of Cambridge, Mass. Endeca, the largest of these specialized companies, claims to serve 40 percent of the top 100 online retailers, including Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Circuit City and Petco.

Retailers can approach the process in phases, Rosenblat says. The first phase is to integrate product merchandising with search and navigation. If you search for “collars” on Petco.com, you will get a list of attributes to help navigate to the collars you want to see-dogs, cats, pinstripes, etc. And once you have specified “blue collars,” you might see the highest-margin ones first.

In the next phase, Rosenblat says, retailers can try to build their e-commerce sites into destinations for something more than shopping by including how-to advice, user reviews, product-comparison charts (useful for upselling) or other features. Search Petco.com for collars, and along with product results you may find guidance on topics such as: At what age should I begin training my dog with a collar?

Chapman says that William-Sonoma has used the same tactic to build a “lifestyle” site on which searches lead not just to products, but also to recipes, decorating tips and holiday advice associated with those products. This raises all sorts of merchandising possibilities, she says: “Here’s a great cheesecake recipe that happens to call for a springform pan. Oh, you don’t have a springform pan? Would you like to see some?”

Rosenblat points to multichannel marketing as another advanced phase of search optimization. “I want to search ‘lumber’ on Home Depot’s website, but I’m not actually going to buy lumber over the Internet,” he says. “So Home Depot’s U.S. site lets me pivot over and search the lumber inventories in the [physical] location nearest me.”

Retailers who take search seriously also benefit from studying the data that their search engines provide. What search terms do shoppers actually type into the box when they’re looking for particular products? An analysis can point to better rules for the site’s own search function to follow. It also can tip off the retailer to unusual paid-search terms to buy on Google or Yahoo-terms that can picked up cheaper in auction-style bidding because competitors aren’t aware of the results they produce.

Data from a site’s search function also allows retailers to improve their position on the free list of “organic” results that engines like Google and Yahoo provide. SLI Systems Inc., with U.S. headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., provides hosted search and navigation services for clients including Tupperware and watersports equipment company NRS. Like other optimizers, SLI manipulates search data on its clients’ sites in a way that makes certain terms easier for Google’s “spider” to find.

For instance, explains SLI CEO Shaun Ryan, “We’ve seen that people search the NRS site for ‘waterproof camera bags.’ So we put that among the top 20 search terms on the NRS home page, Google finds it, and NRS goes up in the organic rankings.” As of early December, NRS’s site was the No. 2 organic listing appearing in a Google search of “waterproof camera bags.”

The software and services these companies provide give retailers a great deal of discretion in determining how a site’s search function will operate. It can be tempting to ignore shoppers’ actual desires and just take them wherever you want them to go-straight to the most expensive stuff, or to the clearance items, or to the accessories that you’re hoping to cross-sell along with the product.

But retailers who abuse the power to customize search rules do so at their own peril, the vendors warn. Whenever the choice is between “here’s what we think you’ll buy” and “here’s what we’d most like to sell you,” the former rule must take precedence, they say.

“Online shopping has to be a user-centric experience,” says Lichtman. “The most successful sites put the user in control.” Yes, a person with a computer in his online shopping cart might like to look at some printers to go with it, and a site can offer that option. “But don’t ever hijack a shopper who is trying to buy something by making him say ‘no’ to everything else you’d like to sell.”

In other words, beware using the power of search to annoy shoppers or, worse, to get in the way of a person trying to buy something from you. Never forget that your competitor is only a click away.

Jack Gordon has served as Electronic Retailer magazine’s editor at large since September 2004. This award-winning freelance writer covers a variety of different industries and markets.


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