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5 Burning Questions About E-Commerce Search Solutions

By Shaun Ryan
Sep 5, 2008 4:00 AM PT

You can thank Google for raising your online customers' search expectations through the roof. The 900-lb. gorilla of Internet search delivers such quality results -- in just tenths of a second, as the results page tells you -- that online shoppers won't settle for anything less than blindingly fast search results from the e-commerce sites they visit.

5 Burning Questions About E-Commerce Search Solutions

You may be working hard at SEO and paid search listings to draw visitors to your site, but if your site search function falls apart when they get there, they'll waste no time in shopping elsewhere. One of our own surveys found that 73 percent of visitors will leave an e-commerce site within one to two minutes when they don't find the products they're looking for -- and 36 percent would never bother returning to that site. As we move into the holidays, and the biggest shopping season of the year, you don't want three-quarters of your shoppers leaving your site in 60 seconds because they can't find the gifts they want.

Site Search Strategy

Effective site search has become a must-have for a successful e-commerce Web site, along with easy navigation and features that promote "stickiness." However, all search functions are not built alike. Offering a mediocre site search experience -- for instance, the search is slow, returns results that are not relevant or can't account for spelling errors -- can turn off potential customers, especially if they can't find the right products quickly and easily.

Conversely, a robust and effective site search solution can do much more than help site visitors find information -- it can boost other Web site and business optimization efforts, including SEO and paid search.

To find the right solution, e-commerce companies in the market for a site search vendor should ask the following questions:

  1. Are the results relevant? The single most important thing about search is that it returns relevant results -- meaning the results actually mirror what the site visitor seeks. (Sounds obvious, but too many search solutions offer results that are totally off the mark.)

    This is the Google effect in action. A 2006 study from Jupiter Research and iProspect found that almost two-thirds of search engine users surveyed expected to find what they were looking for in the first page of search results. A full 90 percent expected to find the relevant item within the first three pages of results.

    Consumers have very little patience for a search that doesn't deliver the finely honed search results they've come to expect. The best solutions "learn" from search activity, meaning they leverage information about search queries, the keywords used, and the resulting items that site visitors actually click on. This greatly improves the chance that your visiting customer will find the item they're looking for within the first page of results -- increasing the likelihood of a purchase.

  2. Does your company have the resources required to run and maintain the site search? The best site search software in the world will fall apart if it's not deployed correctly. Search can require significant computing and technical support resources, both to build and update the indexes, and to robustly serve the search results.

    If you don't have these resources available, you should choose a site search vendor that provides search as an outsourced service, which offloads the search activity from your servers and keeps your site performing optimally. Additionally, a hosted search provider gives you a way to get a robust site search solution up and running with little to no installation or training time, and requires no ongoing maintenance or software upgrades.

  3. Does the vendor give you control over the site search? E-commerce companies should have the freedom to merchandise and promote products using search -- for instance, to adjust the position of items within search results (because of a sale or other promotion), or to place promotional banners on search results pages.

    Site visitors are relying more on search and less on navigation to find the items they need. This means you must have the ability to use the valuable real estate on your search pages to communicate with customers and draw their attention to products or services that you want to promote.

  4. Will the vendor enable you to repurpose data from search? Search can do much more than help your site visitors find what they're looking for. The data from search can improve the customer experience in many ways, by helping you create more targeted paid-search campaigns -- for instance, by directing clicks from a search marketing campaign to a site search landing page.

    Search data can also improve your SEO campaigns. Site search activity, such as keywords and the items clicked on, can help you determine which terms you should optimize your pages for, and what products to show visitors on corresponding landing pages. In addition, an effective site search solution should allow you to analyze data and generate reports on search activity.

  5. Will the search solution constantly improve? Your search solution provider shouldn't get too comfortable. You want a vendor that is constantly searching for ways to innovate and make the product even more useful and effective for your business.

    In addition, you need site search that can be customized to meet your company's unique search requirements -- even the ones that will pop up in the future.

With online shoppers' patience becoming ever thinner, your site search needs to exceed their expectations for speed and relevant results. And with the holidays fast approaching, now's the time to rev up your site search as much as possible.


Shaun Ryan is CEO of SLI Systems, which develops learning-based search and navigation technology for publishers, e-commerce and corporate sites.


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