wooden hammer suspended above an egg
Intelligent site search helps you crack the ecommerce code. PHOTO: Steve Buissinne

The competitive landscape in ecommerce is extremely fierce. There are numerous factors impacting success including site performance and design, the right products and strong brand and company reputation.

Increasingly, one of the most basic ecommerce site functions — search — is assuming a much more prominent role in defining success.

Basic keyword matching based search is now commoditized, and customers expect a more personalized, intuitive search experience. Intelligent and personalized site search, combined with profit-focused merchandising and activity analytics, are proving to be a powerful elixir for boosting site conversions, customer retention and overall ecommerce success.

Smarter Search

In a self-service online world, ecommerce companies compete shoulder-to-shoulder and no longer have the advantage of differentiating through knowledgeable, helpful sales people.

They must do everything in their power to stand apart from “the next guy” and the Amazons of the world, which are only a click away.

Website personalization can play a huge role in this, positively impacting bounce-rates, time-on-site, page views, conversions and other critical metrics. Companies of all sizes, including small companies, are adopting personalization and seeing significant and quick revenue lifts as a result.

Search serves as a “digital front door” — an ecommerce site’s first impression. Intelligent search leverages machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to bring real-time personalization to the search process, fostering greater engagement at this all-important juncture in the customer journey.

Intelligent search abstracts from a wide variety of algorithms, including natural language processing, machine learning and past user behaviors, to produce the most relevant results aligning with customers’ unique wants and desires.

Intelligent search delivers numerous other features that enable it to function like a personal store assistant.

For example, autocomplete helps instinctively guide customers, while streamlined faceted navigation simplifies the process by narrowing down and displaying only the most relevant facets (variations) for different types of products.

For example, if a user searches for dress, only the most pertinent product options will be displayed in order to help narrow down the search — style, color and size, for example.

Intelligent search helps strike a critical (and often elusive) balance in faceting — making sure customers get all the information and options they need, while avoiding overload that can overwhelm, alienate and kill conversion chances. These types of features, combined with personalization, help customers find what they are looking for, in a fast, convenient and elegant process conducive to conversions.

Merchandising for Profit

Search is just the first step in the online conversion funnel. Once a customer has found what he/she is looking for, ecommerce sites must then become more adept at displaying those results most likely to maximize the conversion/sales opportunity.

For example, let’s say a customer searches for “red t-shirts in medium.” The site obviously wants to play its best card and prioritize exposure for the most relevant, profitable product(s) the customer is most likely to act upon.

There are numerous possible criteria for determining what this product should be, including conversion rates, click-through rates, popularity, margin and more.

Just as Google search rankings demonstrate, the higher a result is placed to the top, the more likely it is to be acted upon.

Product boosting has evolved as a technique that allows ecommerce to deploy specifically defined rules such as margin, sell-through, and popularity to automatically determine the order of search results.

All else being equal, product boosting will favor one red t-shirt over another, if the former historically has had a higher CTR, conversion rate, or other metric suggesting a higher probability of conversion.

Product boosting helps ecommerce companies take maximum advantage of precious screen real estate and achieve profit-aware search filtering, while enabling greater marketing consistency across different website versions (for example, U.S. and non-U.S. sites; desktop and mobile sites).

Analyzing Site Activity

Every day, site visitors are giving ecommerce sites a wealth of data that they can put to work to enhance competitive edge. A lot of this information comes from search.

  • What types of products are customers most interested in?
  • What search terms are generating zero results, such that product findability can be improved?

Beyond search, which products are under exposed, over exposed, top performers or trending the most heavily? This type of information can help optimally determine marketing spend allocations.

Which areas of the website are driving the most conversions — is it search, product finders, product recommendations or something else? This data helps identify areas for investment and guide site design decisions, such as which features should be prioritized for performance engineering and displayed most prominently.

In summary, a highly profitable ecommerce business is always a work in progress, and the dynamics driving conversions at any point in time are very fluid. Organizations must be able to sense and appropriately respond to these changes in as close to real-time as possible.

Overcoming Retail Challenges

Retailers are at a watershed moment, facing increased pressures to close stores, increase profitability and compete with Amazon and others of this ilk.

Kenneth Cole is one prime example, recently announcing plans to close almost all of its stores (only two full-priced stores will remain in the US) to focus on ecommerce solely. Ultimately, these decisions are being implemented to help reduce unnecessary overhead and maximize profits.

But shutting physical stores to focus on ecommerce is not a sure path to profitability.

Retailers lose one significant advantage of physical stores — the ability to differentiate based on a highly individualized and intimate level of service.

Organizations can offset this loss by harnessing the deep insights that only online interactions can afford, particularly search.

In the online world, customer experience is the big differentiator. Greater personalization through search, combined with more profit-aware merchandizing and deep analysis of site activity data, will all factor heavily into the determination of ecommerce winners.