Savvy Search Boosts Sales

Lena West

Updated · Aug 15, 2006

When it comes to e-commerce, sales rule the roost. But all too often customers don't find what they need and simply decide to look elsewhere before closing the deal. Dwindling conversions are an epidemic for online retailers but a few software companies are providing an antidote through intelligent e-commerce search.

Basic e-commerce search refers to the search functionality on an online retailer's Web site that is used to find a particular product. For example, if a search is conducted on a retailer's web site, a results page is delivered with links to products that match the search as closely as possible. Intelligent e-commerce search, however, is a bit different.

Intelligent e-commerce search software helps site owners understand what buyers are searching for but also delivers results that highlight the most popular products from previous searches. Providing relevant search results is critical; otherwise site owners risk losing a sale and a potential loyal customer. If the search results are relevant, the customer is more likely to make a purchase, thereby increasing sales and conversion rates.

Is Your Site Search Outdated?
In the not-so-distant past, it was enough for site owners to have a site map and simple keyword-based search. At best, search functionality would be built into the web site's infrastructure but, more often than not, it was provided by plug-ins offered by popular search engines.

If a customer needed to purchase a new kitchen appliance and they searched for “range,” they were only shown items that had the word “range” in the product name or description. Products with words like “oven” or “stove” in the product name or description, although clearly relevant, were not shown — much to the detriment of online sales.

Sharp Searchers
Thankfully for retailers, there has been a sea change in the world of search and in the forefront is California-based SLI Systems. With their product, Learning Search, there is no software to install, the product is hosted on SLI's servers and works as well with sites that have a few hundred searches as it does with sites that have thousands. Customized development is included, the entire implementation process takes less than three weeks from start to finish and monthly fees are proportional to the traffic and searches performed on the site.

Web Analytics: Site Overview report
SLI: Smart Search.

(Click for larger image.)

SLI's CEO, Dr. Shaun Ryan, says that most retailers are hooked after the 30-day trial. “We have various algorithms to determine whether clicks are recent or old,” he says, “and we can also tell if a customer goes back to the search page and clicks or searches for something that they really want and end up buying.”

Learning Search automatically places popular items at the top of search results and the software can also be leveraged for search engine optimization. It continually “learns” from past site search activity by tracking visitors' aggregate search queries and click-throughs, and uses that data to deliver results based on popularity. Whether companies use their Web site to sell products, provide support or information, Learning Search returns the most relevant search results, which helps attract and retain customers and ultimately increases sales.

Giving SLI a run for their money is Toronto-based Nextopia. Sanjay Arora, company president, is quick to point out that his company competes on price with their solution, eComm|Search, with an investment of just $1,000 a year. Although, Nextopia began as a search-engine development company, in the past few years it recognized a niche in retail e-commerce search and decided to pursue it.

eComm|Search is not a hosted solution, it is XML-based, and therefore hosted on the site owners' server. The software is a semi-intelligence-based search solution, meaning it relies on a mix of keywords, the strategic use of synonyms and sales data. Arora says their product works best with, “sites that are doing 200-50,000 searches per day.”

Web Analytics: Site Overview report
Next! eComm Search.

(Click for larger image.)

The Proof is in the Results
Richard Sexton, president of Carolina Rustica, a multi-channel retailer of high-end furniture, lighting and home accents, says he looked at other intelligent search providers including Mercado and Celebros and while he has nothing bad to say about those companies, SLI did a better job of addressing what his company specifically needed.

“Our search results were generated by our shopping cart platform so we only got out what we put in,” says Sexton. “Also, because search queries are memory intensive, if we had multiple customers searching on the site, it would slow the site down considerably. It was miserable and I knew something had to be done.”

Reports are automatically e-mailed everyday in graphical format and Sexton can also see the best-selling products and top-visited URLs, features he finds especially useful.

Carolina Rustica's conversions increased by .25 to .50 percent, inquiry calls are up and they have doubled their customer service staff as a result. Sexton pegs the overall net sales increase by as much as 30 percent.

Ken Crites, marketing director for consumer direct channels at Vermont-based Green Mountain Coffee, regrets that he didn't start using SLI's Learning Search sooner.

“We learned from industry studies that a customer who uses your site search is 2.7 times more likely to purchase. And, we want people to buy,” said Crites. “The search that was included in Microsoft Commerce wasn't giving us the information we needed – and the search functionality wasn't intelligent search. We want to invest in the areas of our site that increase sales and site search is a no-brainer for increasing sales.”

Green Mountain Coffee's overall site sales have increased about 60 percent over the past two years — most of which they attributable to implementing intelligent search — and online conversions have increased for the retailer as well.

Bottom Line
The key for proactive online retailers lies not in simply tacking-on search capability but rather in increasing the Web site's value to the customer by leveraging intelligent search. Or, in the words of Crites, “Bad search is a massive blown opportunity.”

Lena L. West is the CEO of xynoMedia Technology. xynoMedia helps small businesses that are sick and tired of technology being a pain in the assets. She can be reached at xynoMedia.

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