Five Things Online Merchants Should Know about Search
By Ina Steiner
One of the biggest tasks online sellers face is driving traffic to their ecommerce websites. But once customers arrive on your site, the next challenge is to help them find the products they want to purchase. SLI Systems CEO Shaun Ryan has been helping companies with this challenge for 10 years. With a PhD in Artificial Intelligence, he co-founded SLI Systems and was one of the developers of the company's unique "Learning Search" site search technology. He posts regular insights on site search trends to the SLI blog and also hosts the ongoing Ecommerce Podcast. AuctionBytes interviewed Dr. Ryan and asked him the top five things online merchants and marketplace sellers should know about search to help them turn visitors into customers.
AuctionBytes: What is search, and why is it so important to website owners?
Shaun Ryan: Site search is the function on a website that allows visitors to look for things - products or content - they're interested in, by typing in a keyword. Research shows that people who use the search box on a site rather than simply navigate (i.e. click on navigational links) convert at 2-3 times the rate of people who don't.
When search is handled properly - meaning it performs quickly, delivers relevant results, and presents opportunities for merchants to cross-sell or up-sell similar items - it can be one of the most important revenue-generating features of a site. When handled poorly, meaning results are inadequate and visitors have little control over how to filter results - it can cause frustration and disappointment among shoppers who will likely leave the site, possibly never to return.
AuctionBytes: Some search engines on ecommerce platforms or shopping cart systems don't have sophisticated features. For sellers on a budget, is there a way around these limitations?
Shaun Ryan: Absolutely. There are many search solutions that are available as a hosted service (such as SLI's Learning Search), also known as software-as-a-service, which are priced moderately and on a subscription basis.
Most search solutions that offer the necessary features to create a user-friendly service, while also enabling ecommerce sites to merchandise (or "searchandise") their products, will deliver a return on investment in the first month or two.
So while a site owner may initially think something is priced out of their budget, they should re-consider the benefits that a more sophisticated search will offer their business, in increased click-throughs, average order size, page views and conversions.
AuctionBytes: What are the five key things online merchants of all sizes should know about search to help them improve their ecommerce business?
1) Relevance of results is key. One way of measuring relevance is to look at the click-through rates on the search results in your search activity logs. If people are clicking on the results, then they're probably relevant. Another relatively simple way to measure relevance is to track the number of complaints you get about your search (this may be from staff as well as customers). Obviously, a high number of complaints probably means the results aren't matching what people are looking for.
2) Refinements are now a standard feature of site search and are particularly useful when there are many results. For example, a search for "dress" on an apparel retail site may return hundreds of results. Offering visitors the ability to refine results by certain criteria - e.g. category, brand, size, price, user ratings - will make it easier for them to find what they're looking for.
3) Multivariate testing of various page lay-out and other options is extremely important, to understand what features will perform best for your site search. For example, some retailers display search results in a list view, which limits the number of products that can be shown "above the fold" (before visitors have to scroll down). Others display results in a grid view, which allows for more items to be shown but limits the amount of descriptive text that can be included. To decide which layout will perform best, a site owner should conduct tests.
4) Don't ignore mobile devices. More and more, people are visiting online retail sites from handheld devices - whether it's to find the closest store, research products or make a purchase. Whatever the case, retailers should consider creating sites specially designed for smaller screens and limited typing functionality. This should include a mobile version of the site search which is even more important on a mobile device where there are limited options for navigation options.
5) When merchants evaluate search solutions, they should be sure to work with a team of experts that is knowledgeable about site search and retail, and who can offer valuable insights into features and enhancements that will make the site stand out. The options for how to improve site search are endless, but not all approaches make sense for everyone. In this way, it pays to work with people who understand your business and your needs, who can make recommendations for ways to maximize performance.
Additional Resources from SLI Systems
SLI Systems Big Book of Site Search Tips - Link to resource
Improving the Way People Shop Online - Site Search Best Practices - Link to resource
SLI Systems blog - Link to blog
Ecommerce Podcast - Link to podcast
About the author:
Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. She's a widely cited authority on marketplace selling and is author of "Turn eBay Data Into Dollars" (McGraw-Hill 2006). Her blog was featured in the book, "Blogging Heroes" (Wiley 2008). Follow her on Twitter at @ecommercebytes and send news tips to email@example.com.
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