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The Wide Open World of Web Site Search

The Wide Open World of Web Site Search

Google and Yahoo may be the undisputed Internet search leaders, but they've left plenty of room for smaller competitors to make their mark with other site search technologies. For e-commerce operations, the way customers search once they land on a site can be just as critical as the way they get there in the first place. Those who don't find what they want -- and fast -- won't stick around.

By Diane Stresing
04/29/09 4:00 AM PT

Google and Yahoo used to compete mightily in the site search category, but now the two have turned their focus toward search advertising, which makes them more money. Dozens of smaller players have emerged to fill the void -- and to make money.

Other site search solutions may have looked like diminutive Davids when they first appeared next to the Goliaths, but many of the smaller tools offer special functionality the giants don't have. Like the big guys, however, smaller solution providers know that prospective buyers are attracted by the word "free."

Searching for Success

Once upon a time, most solutions were designed to live "in-house," and they required big chunks of disk space and processing power. Hosted search solutions are the more common choice now.

Although arguably less important than driving traffic to a site in the first place, site search is critical. It is the primary catalyst that keeps visitors at a site and turns browsers into buyers.

Sweet Search Pays Off

Shoppers use site search when they know, or sort of know, what they want -- but they're impatient. If shoppers don't find what they want, they'll quickly leave to look elsewhere.

"Just as a good in-store sales associate would respond to a shopper's request in a way that brings the interaction closer to a purchase, so should the search on an e-commerce site," Geoff Brash, cofounder of SLI Systems, told the E-Commerce Times.

Ideally, a search function would not display a back-ordered item as one of the top results. That kind of thing leads to abandoned shopping carts and customers who won't soon return.

A good site search should service both sides of the screen. On the external side, it should help customers quickly find what they want and offer alternative or additional products of interest. Internally, it should support sales and marketing operations -- for example, provide data indicating upward trends on sales-per-order averages.

Sometimes, knowing what products were searched for but not found can suggest new product offerings or new packaging. For example, after candy maker Jelly Belly implemented SLI's managed site search and user-generated search engine optimization services last fall, the company learned that the third most-requested search was for Champagne Bubbles. In response, it began offering a one-pound container of the chewy confection. It's now one of the company's biggest sellers.

Some site search systems are based solely on algorithms, but SLI claims its technology Visit the VMware Tech Center learns from visitors and moves items within the search results based on what people searching on the site find the most useful.

"In other words," Brash explained, "our technology learns from people who use it to continually improve relevance of results."

It also speeds up the results, he added, which is important.

"Online shoppers demand pretty instant results," Kevin Lindsay, product marketing director at Omniture," told the E-Commerce Times. "You should be striving for sub-second response times."

IT Isn't in the Driver's Seat

Obviously, certain solutions make sense for different types of sites and business models, and IT departments typically help evaluate options based on price, platform, capacity, ease of installation, and maintenance. Still, final purchasing decisions typically fall to a company's marketing or e-commerce staff -- not IT, according to Lindsay.

When Omniture entered the site search space with its 2008 purchase of Visual Sciences (maker of the Atomz site search product) it found that to be true, he noted.

"Merchandisers need the control to be able to execute merchandising strategies without having to lean heavily on IT," Lindsay said.

More Than E-Commerce Solutions

Companies may be reluctant to invest in site search for nontransactional sites because return on investment isn't immediately apparent. However, there are payoffs. The more relevant data users find on a news or a legal research site and the faster they find it, the longer they'll stay, the more often they'll return, and the more friends they'll tell -- all of which helps justify an increase in advertising rates.

PicoSearch works with owners and developers of many sites that are information-based, not transaction-based. Libraries and legal sites figure prominently among PicoSearch's list of users and customers; many of them like to partition their sites, or have certain keywords always go to certain pages.

Customers using the paid products can set user synonyms to find more matches in any languages, and find plural and singular words interchangeably in English and most European languages. Even the free plan offers advanced search capabilities using "ANY/ALL" terms, phrases and Booleans.

PicoSearch's "average" customer site has "hundreds of pages," Carl Schroeder, director of search technologies, told the E-Commerce Times. Many have a few thousand, and "a few" have 30,000 to 200,000 pages.

One customer, a review site, had 1.5 million product reviews, Schroeder said.

Not surprisingly, the firm's hit highlighting feature is a popular one. The function includes a navigation tool that places arrows under each searched word or term. Rolling over the arrow will lead a page visitor to the next occurrence of that word.

Not Exactly a Free-for-All

Most site search systems base pricing on the number of pages and types of documents indexed. Because the most popular prefix to the word "download" is "free," the majority of hosted site search providers start there -- but prices vary widely, ranging from zero to upwards of US$500,000.

Like many solution providers, PicoSearch offers a free product with parameters defined by the most popular default settings. Additionally, business subscribers that pay for the service can take advantage of full layout control and advanced account management features.

While SLI's flagship product isn't free -- users are charged on a quarterly subscription basis -- prospects can start with a free 30-day trial.

Picture This

What if you're looking for something other than consumer goods or services -- say, stolen art objects? LTU Technologies uses a patented technology to help government agencies track down some of the 60,000 or so European art objects that are stolen every year.

LTU's technology "kind of mimics the way the human visual system works," CEO and cofounder Alexandre Winter told the E-Commerce Times. "As long as your eye can recognize it, LTU's software can recognize it."

LTU's software makes it possible to match an artist's sketch to photos on file, for example, or to help support legal proceedings in a copyright infringement case, such as might occur when someone grabs protected artwork from a Web site, alters it using Photoshop or a similar program to add text or other elements, and then attempts to sell the new "original" work.

"This is a technology that can be used in many different ways," Winter said. LTU's solutions include multimedia forensics, online copyright management, visual cataloging, and video matching.

Right now, though, the fastest-growing segment of LTU's business is e-commerce, said Winter.

So, regardless of the type of technology used when it comes to site search products, merchandisers may be driving the market -- but ultimately, shoppers are in charge.


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