E-commerce Link: Enhance Your On-site Search
For a more efficient approach to Internet sales, consider advanced search technology
Imagine you run an online store selling home furnishings. A customer comes looking for a couch and is disgusted to find that a search for “sofa” dead-ends with “no results found.” With a few clicks, he zooms over to your competition and does his shopping there. The problem, of course, is that he accidentally typed “soda” in the search query. Not your fault, but definitely your problem.
Enhanced on-site search technology can nullify this kind of random yet disastrous error, making your on-site search feature work the way your customers expect it to, thereby increasing customer satisfaction, conversion and overall sales.
The importance of providing accurate search results is clear when you look at the heavy use customers make of this tool. According to Jupiter Research Inc.’s November 2002 Jupiter Consumer Survey, 82 percent of visitors to retail Web sites use the on-site search function. Thirty-four percent of visitors head straight to the search box immediately on entering the site.
This same survey also revealed that 85 percent of the visitors who used the search tool were unhappy with the results. A report by Nielsen Norman Group (E-Commerce User Experience: Search, 2000) revealed that within a group of average Web users, only 51 percent had a successful first search attempt, with a full 20 percent giving up after a single failed attempt. That’s too many buyers encouraged to buy elsewhere.
Unsuccessful searches mean large amounts of lost revenue. Any single sale is jeopardized by bad results, and damaged customer satisfaction and decreased customer loyalty can have a very negative long-term impact.
Overcome the Failed Search
The immediate cause of a failed search and a lost sale often appears to be unfixable. After all, can you help it if the customer can’t spell? And how do you convince an ordinary keyword search application to put results in a context that is easy for customers to understand and use? These problems can be solved by getting away from outdated basic keyword-search technology.
Basic search will only accept a perfect match. An undesirable result also will occur when the customer searches for a term not in the database, such as searching for “crimson” when your product descriptions only use the word “red.”
How Enhanced Search Solves the Problem
You could attempt to augment your list of keywords with every possible synonym for every word in your database, including likely misspellings, but this would be an exercise in futility. Keyword technology, though it has its place, is extremely high-maintenance and is a weak point on any but the simplest of sites.
A new class of enhanced search technology was designed to overcome the shortcomings of keyword and basic search. Enhanced search technology is far more efficient and cost-effective, because it vastly reduces keyword maintenance. It can “think” on the fly to accurately interpret your customers’ search terms within the context of your Web site, your product line and your content.
The major providers of enhanced search technology all use different techniques, but their common goal is to circumvent inevitable customer errors, interpret the customer’s real meaning, and present accurate, meaningful responses in relevant ways. For example, one such provider, Netrics (www.netrics.com), uses advanced pattern matching algorithms to determine similarities between what the customer typed and what actually is in your database. Most applications also give you the flexibility of adding a list of keywords so you can create custom registries of synonyms.
Enhanced Search in Action
The advanced search application quickly would realize that there was no entry for “soda” in your database; it then would search for the closest logical equivalent. Because it is a furniture store, there are dozens of entries using the word “sofa.” The customer is treated to an array of options for sofas, couches, loveseats, slipcovers and anything else that has the word “sofa” associated with it in your database.
Another example: A customer might be searching for “crimson cushions.” That precise term does not exist in your database, but your enhanced search feature recognizes “crimson” as a synonym for red and “cushion” as a synonym for pillow. The search tool produces a list of all pillows, cushions and pillow cases that have the word “red” in their descriptions or keywords.
Rank Results to Control Merchandising
These enhanced search technologies allow you, the marketer, to control search results in real time, based on how you want to sell to the customer. First of all, they can rank each product one at a time according to the importance you assign to each keyword for each product. Second, you can set rules that weight some parameters—for example “best sellers” or “sale”—more heavily than others to sort the list in different ways.
Depending on the extent of personalization techniques you use on your site, your weighting could be highly customized with different weighting schemes applied to different customer groups. Your on-site search could evolve very rapidly from a customer convenience feature to an active merchandising tool.
Results of Enhanced Search
The benefits of using advanced search technologies will vary according to the characteristics of each site. Studies show that for a fairly modest site with 250,000 visitors each month and an average transaction amount of $30, an incremental increase in search accuracy of only 25 percent can recapture approximately $3,000 per month in revenue currently lost through bad search results. This assumes that 50 percent of a site’s visitors use the search feature. Using the same numbers, a site that receives 10 million visitors per month could recover almost $120,000 per month. The percentage of lost revenue recaptured in both examples is approximately 61 percent. In many cases, advanced search can boost accuracy by more than 25 percent, increasing revenues far more than is illustrated in these examples.
According to Internet Retailer (Feb. 5, 2004), Batteries.com attributes a 30-percent improvement in sales conversion to its deployment of a more intuitive on-site search tool powered by technology from Endeca Technologies Inc. (www.endeca.com).
You may not even have to use an entirely new technology to get better results. Barewalls.com modified its own in-house search tool to sort search results according to popularity. This was a major contributor to a 19-percent year-over-year increase in sales (Internet Retailer, Feb. 13, 2004).
Do the Simple Things
If you do nothing else to improve on-site search, follow these two pieces of advice.
First, make sure your search box is readily available on every page of your site. The Nielsen Norman study found that many shoppers never find the search feature in the first place, even though they are looking for it. Second, plan for the future. Take a look at your Web site statistics and start tracking some basic numbers:
• What percentage of your customers currently use your search feature?
• What percentage purchase an item they find using your search feature?
• How many times does “no results found” come up as a search result?
These will give you some insight into the effectiveness of your current search tool and will be very important when evaluating the benefit of advanced search technology.
Although the improvement in immediate sales can be considerable, perhaps the greatest benefit of adding an intuitive search feature is the increase in customer satisfaction and loyalty. Imagine how grateful your customers will be when their lost couch shows up on your Web site.
Ken Burke is president and CEO of Multimedia Live, an e-commerce technology and development company based in Petaluma, CA. He can be reached at (707) 773-3434 or by e-mail at email@example.com.