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Posted March 24, 2006 By Gerry Blackwell     Feedback

Picosearch, a hosted search company, makes adding search capability to your Web site fast, easy and affordable.

When customers come to your Web site, they usually want to find stuff fast. If the site is small enough and designed well enough, they can find what they want by clicking through menus. But once a site gets beyond a certain size – a couple of hundred pages, say – and especially if you have lots of products for sale, you’ll need to add a search function so visitors can do fast keyword searches of your pages.

Affordable search options for small Web retailers are few and far between, however, and they’re definitely not all created equal. CWI Medical, a company that sells consumer medical products online, is very happy with the results it’s getting after switching six months ago to a hosted service from specialist Picosearch. Like other search solutions, such as Google, Picosearch creates an index of key words on Web pages and then uses the index to quickly find pages that match a customer’s search terms.

“Since we implemented Picosearch our conversion rate has increased dramatically and sales have gone up by 50 percent,” says Daniel Dunleavy, CWI's marketing executive. “I’m not sure we can attribute all of that to Picosearch. I’m sure there are other reasons why [sales grew], but I know that Picosearch helped.”

The Diaper Lady
CWI was founded by entrepreneur Shirley Lam who, 15 years ago, saw an unserved market for adult incontinence products. Lam started selling out of her garage – her house quickly became known as “the home of the diaper lady,” Dunleavy says. The company later added other products, such as nutritional supplements and bathroom safety and ambulatory products, and eventually moved into corporate offices.

It was pretty much a local/regional operation in Farmingdale, New York on Long Island until the company launched its Web site three years ago. Sales jumped 1,000 percent from its first year on the Web to its second, Dunleavy says. CWI’s Web site, which is hosted by Yahoo, has also grown by leaps and bounds. A year ago it was at 100 pages, today it’s at 700, and Dunleavy expects it to keep growing.

Until it switched to Picosearch, CWI was using the hosted search service provided as part of a bundle from Yahoo. But site data showed that it was taking visitors taking longer than they should have to find what they wanted, Dunleavy felt. CWI also wanted the search result pages to look just like its own pages and to include product pictures along with descriptions of page hits. Yahoo couldn’t do any of that, so CWI switched.

“We chose Picosearch because it delivered the most for the best price,” Dunleavy says. “Before we signed up, we also contacted [Picosearch’s reference] customers and everyone we talked to said they loved the service.”

Value for Money
Picosearch subscribers pay $249 a year ($20.75 a month) or $144 for six months ($24 a month) for the Professional Plan, which covers sites up to 3,000 pages, or $498 a year ($41.50 a month) for the Premium Plan, for sites up to 6,000 pages. Both provide virtually unlimited searches – up to three million a year. Picosearch also has a Platinum Plan with variable pricing for larger enterprises.

“It’s tricky to strike the right balance between technology and affordability so that the service is economical enough for small and medium-size businesses,” says Carl Schroeder, Picosearch’s director of search technology. “We’ve been doing that since 1998.”

Price is one of his company’s key differentiators, Schroeder says. Services priced in the same ball park, such as Yahoo and Google, don’t offer the same value. For one thing, they don’t re-index pages whenever the customer updates his site nor do they offer the customer any control over indexing. This means new content may not be searchable for hours or days. Picosearch customers can click a button at the company’s Web site whenever they add new material to automatically re-index their sites.

The alternative to hosted search – buying, installing and maintaining search software on your own servers – really isn’t feasible for Web retailers like CWI Medical, especially when its site is hosted elsewhere. Installed software is also typically too expensive for small companies and requires IT personnel to maintain servers and software.

“We handle all those details on our side,” Schroeder points out. “We maintain the servers – we’re working with a server farm with maximum connectivity for reliability. We maintain the software. The customer doesn’t have to worry about any of that.”

Sophisticated Features
Yet Picosearch provides an array of features that Schroeder claims is comparable with installed software solutions. One of the key features that helped sell Dunleavy was the ability to use a custom page template for displaying search results.

Every page on the CWI site looks the same, with the same background, the same banner and tool bar across the top – which includes the keyword search field – and the same navigation links down the left side and across the bottom. CWI wanted search result pages to look the same, which they didn’t with Yahoo. Picosearch let CWI upload a copy of its basic page template, with all the links. When a visitor uses the search tool, the search terms are sent to Picosearch which uses its index of the CWI site to find matching pages. It displays the results using the CWI template.

Sharp-eyed visitors may notice that the URL in the browser address field is a Picosearch URL – because the search page actually resides on a Picosearch server – but it looks the same as any other CWI page. When the person clicks on an item in the list of page hits, the link takes him back to the CWI site.

Another key feature was Picosearch’s ability to extract pictures of products from product pages found in searches and display the pictures beside the description of the page in the search results.

Dunleavy also quickly learned the value of Picosearch’s reporting features. The service generates reports ranking the most common searches. These include a ranking of top searches that found no pages, which tells CWI the products its customers want that it doesn’t currently stock. It’s a very clear and quantifiable indication of customer demand. Based on the reports, CWI has been adding new products to the site a couple of times a month since implementing Picosearch – which it believes contributes to sales growth.

The reports also show CWI how long it takes customers to find what they want. If it’s taking too long, the company can often fine tune to improve performance. Search engines like Picosearch’s use mathematical algorithms to rank the importance or relevance of pages it finds. Before he began fine tuning, Dunleavy noticed that often when a visitor searched on a product name, Picosearch would rank category or index pages higher than actual product pages. He wanted the customer to see the product page at the top of the list.

Picosearch gives him the ability to “promote” or “demote” individual pages so they will appear higher or lower in a list of search results. He simply demoted category and index pages. “Now if you do a search on, for example, Boost [a nutrition supplement], the first thing that pops up [in the search results] is a Boost page with a picture and description,” Dunleavy says.

Lightning Fast
Even without fine tuning, search performance was better than with Yahoo, he says. It was taking up to five seconds for Yahoo to deliver a list of page hits. It often takes Picosearch less than a second. Picosearch has also had zero downtime since CWI started using the service, Dunleavy says.

It was very easy to implement. In CWI’s case, it took a little longer to get everything working perfectly because the company includes hard coding for the search function on every page. It had to change the coding on every existing page to redirect search requests from Yahoo to Picosearch. Basic setup, though, took little more than an hour. “It was very simple,” Dunleavy says. “And everything went perfectly the first time.”

It’s impossible, in fact, to get Dunleavy to do anything other than rave about Picosearch. When asked if there were any features he would like to see added, he explains that when he was first learning the product he called Picosearch a few times to ask if the company would consider programming new features he wanted. The answer was always the same: the feature already existed. “So no, I don’t think there’s anything they can improve on,” he says.

It’s not many products that get such a glowing recommendation.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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