Multi-faceted search, or letting shoppers look for items based on a variety of variables, and so-called "searchandising," or search tools that integrate merchandising into the results, are coming to the forefront of the industry as they net e-tailers higher-than-average conversion rates. And, analysts say the trend is only going to get hotter as more companies offer such services and more online sellers report plans to adopt them.
It's not surprising that 70 percent of retailers surveyed in the recent Aberdeen Group benchmark report, "Web Site Search: Revenue in the Results," said that visitors who used search tools were more likely to make a purchase. What is noteworthy is that more than half (54 percent) of vendors defined as "Best-in-Class," or those achieving the highest profits and conversions, use search as a merchandising tool.
Site Search Is Sizzling
In terms of the bottom line, the report shows that 22 percent of retailers reported conversion rates 26 percent to 50 percent better than those who did not use search, while 11 percent of Best-in-Class retailers reported improvements in conversion rates that were 51 percent to 75 percent better than non-search users.
Additionally, 62 percent continually fine tune search for desired results based on user actions, current promotions and collective behavior, according to the report, and 38 percent of Best-in-Class retailers segment search query results using faceted search tools.
Clearly, the practice of combining product-finding with merchandising is on the rise, and already being embraced among successful companies, with more e-businesses set to follow.
"I think it's definitely picking up steam as a trend," said John Lovett, e-commerce research analyst at Aberdeen. "We saw in our research that Best-in-Class, 92 percent of them have a faceted navigation structure, and among all respondents, 77 percent said they plan on using it in some way."
More Attributes, Better Results
Lovett calls faceted navigation "a searchandising mentality that plays on a shoppers' inclination to start with a vague idea of what they're looking for and to browse a site until they stumble upon relevant products."
He said faceted navigation is something any Web shop owner can employ. "It really has to do with organizing your site, so it's not necessarily cost-prohibitive. You're categorizing products based on attributes, and the more attributes you ascribe to products, the better the product search results."
For example, he said, if you sell appliances and list a refrigerator, you'd maximize search results by including the size, electricity requirements, extra features, shelving options and so on. "If someone has to have a fridge that's 72 inches tall or it won't fit into their design," he said, "they'll use that in a search."
Faceted navigation begins with the way metadata is tagged and associated throughout the site, said Lovett, with the goal being to produce search results that facilitate product discovery or additional drilling to reveal more choices for buyers.
In another example, he cites listing music by genre, album title, song, artist and lyrics. "People often know the words to a song, but not who sings it," so that's a good use of faceted search.
Having said that, Lovett does acknowledge that in addition to an organized search structure, "you also need a search tool to help find the products." Though he does not endorse any particular product, he does recommend that online sellers on a budget "look for search services in an on-demand delivery model because month-to-month billing keeps costs low when you're just starting."
And it appears that search and merchandising companies have no shortage of terms for their respective faceted search tools. "Everyone has some lingo for it," said Lovett. Some examples include the following:
- Endeca, Guided Navigation.
- Mercado, Product Data Optimizer.
- FAST, offers faceted search with no product name.
- SLI Systems, Learning Navigation.
- DieselPoint, Search and Navigation.
In regard to combining search with merchandising, Lovett says it's all about going beyond direct correlations. "If you buy an electronic device like a digital camera, it's logical to think of buying a battery to go with it," he said. "But you want to give the customer a reason to think about books on photography to increase your sales, make a connection the consumer is not thinking of."
Setting Specialized Search in Motion
The report recommends steps for maximizing your site search, based on three categories: those who are just starting out, those who represent the "industry norm" and e-tailers defined as "Best-in-Class."
Novices should embrace customer-centric search functionality such as natural language processing, misspelled word interpretation and, thesaurus/synonym processing. Develop a systematic process for fine tuning search results and cultivate data by noting browsing preferences and purchasing patterns and by using analytics.
Those e-tailers already using some specialized search can improve results by dedicating staff to actually interpret analytics data, mine search data such as customer history and pay attention to ongoing improvements, for example, by tweaking search applications for seasonal buying patterns, new products and trends.
Recommendations for those already successful with specialized search include being vigilant about matching your faceted navigation with customer satisfaction, striving toward real-time processes to personalize the shopping experience and conducting A/B split testing to measure effectiveness of search tool improvements.
In general, it seems the overall mindset for successful search merchandising involves folding cross-sell and up-selling into your search results. "This will continually be evolving," said Lovett, "and it helps to think about how to give your customers the ability to find things they're not necessarily looking for, while letting them easily find what they are looking for. This leads to higher sales, and, of course, more revenue, which is what it's all about."
Michelle Megna is managing editor of ECommerce-Guide.com.
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