The importance of smart search to your site, your company and your customer

28th Aug 2013

In many cases, customers visiting an ecommerce site already know what they are looking for, and so will head straight for the search box. But is your site's search functionality up to scratch?

In addition to performing the seemingly straightforward task of finding customers the products they are looking for, an efficient onsite search box is also a valuable way of communicating with customers to learn more about their shopping habits, ultimately allowing retailers to provide them with the best possible results.

An effective search function’s impact on the rate of conversion is impressive: customers who use an onsite search box result in an average conversion rate of 2.4% against the 1.7% rate of customers who don’t. This alone should be enough to convince any marketer that implementing a smart onsite search function is well worth the effort.

In a bricks-and-mortar store, a sales assistant is able to offer customers immediate, helpful service and find exactly what the customer is looking for. Online, it is the search box asks ‘how may I help you?’ by allowing customers to reveal exactly what they are looking for via their search queries.

Why is good search so important?

In many cases, customers visiting an ecommerce site already know what they are looking for, and so will head straight for the search box. Since it is likely to be their first point of contact with the website, retailers must ensure they get it right first time to avoid customers getting frustrated by inaccurate or badly-ranked results and moving on to a different site.

A good starting point is to introduce a ‘suggest’ function, which presents users with a drop-down menu of several possible search queries containing the text fragment they have typed. This will encourage users by showing them a range of options, and can also be used to display how many items within each category are in stock.

How to avoice a ‘zero results’ page

When a customer enters a search query, it should be retailers’ number one priority to ensure they never see the ‘zero results’ page. Even if a query returns no exact matches, the customer needs to be shown complementary products or cross-sells; after all, there is a better chance of them making a purchase if they are shown a product than if they are presented with a blank screen, even if it doesn’t exactly match their search term.

Being unprepared for spelling mistakes and typos, and even missing or unnecessary spaces between words like ‘bluejeans’ or ‘play suit’, will confound less sophisticated onsite search boxes. By anticipating misspelled or hastily-entered search terms as well as potential phonetic differences across languages, retailers can increase their chances of producing more relevant results.

How to understand the customer

A customer’s search terms can tell retailers a lot about their customers’ desires, frustrations and needs. For example, in addition to revealing exactly which products they are interested in buying, customers’ search terms can tell retailers about other information they are looking for, such as how to get a job at the company or how to find their nearest store. This insight into what the customer really wants can be used to improve the layout of a site, or promote relevant information to the front page.

What different types of search are there?

Although it can vary depending on the types of products in question, retailers can also look at search queries and make certain assumptions about the intent of each customer – for example, there is a strong link between how specific a search term is and how likely a customer is to make a purchase.

If the search query is formed from a single word, such as ‘dress’ or ‘boots’, it is fairly safe to assume that the customer has a low level of intent to purchase and is just browsing the catalogue. However, if the query is made up of four or more words, including product names or models such as ‘Blue Reebok classics size 6’, it can be assumed that this customer knows exactly what they want and are interested in buying it.

Retailers can rank results in a specific way according to how customers search – for example, if a customer enters a very generic, one-word query, the retailer has the opportunity to use highly sophisticated merchandising algorithms to determine how to display results. Conversely, with a more descriptive search query, ranking results becomes much simpler because there is a smaller pool of products to choose from.

Top-selling items should always be ranked first with any type of query, while products that are less popular should be displayed toward the bottom of the page. It is also vital to clearly flag up any items that may not be available for purchase or delivery to a particular region – the customer must be informed of this prior to clicking onto the product page, otherwise they may feel misled by the time they reach the ‘add to cart’ stage of their shopping journey. 

Allyson Tremblay is UK sales director at SDL Fredhopper.


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