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Tune Your Site Search to Sell: June Multichannel Merchant Column

My June "Effective Website" column in MultiChannel Merchant magazine is about tuning your site search to sell. Here it is served to you in easily digestible blog form:

Site search is a conversation, a chance to listen to your customer and respond. Tune it up, and it has the potential to be one of the most ROI-positive investments you'll make in your site. Is your site search providing maximum return? To answer this question, let's:

  • Understand why site search is unique among your website features and why this matters.
  • See if your site search is primed to help your visitor find, choose, and buy.
  • Discover the metrics you need to evaluate your site search's performance.
  • Learn the most important questions to ask when shopping for a site search solution.

What makes site search different?

To understand the power of well-tuned site-search on an online retail site, consider how this feature differs from its counterpart: site navigation.

Take a look at your homepage. Now, count the navigational links on the page: top nav, left nav, and footer. Expand your dynamic menus. Count your category links, your featured product links, the links to editorial and customer service. How many do you have?

For a large-scale online retailer — — it's not unusual for this number to approach 50. That's 50 attempts to provide a visitor with exactly what she needs to get started on her shopping quest, 50 attempts to be helpful.

The problem is that those 50 links all represent just one point of view: yours — the site owner's. To understand what your customer really wants and the language she uses to describe it, you need to pay attention to the empty box on the page — your site search.

As your product selection and your site become deeper and broader, your navigation becomes more detailed and more complex. And that means the alternative your site search provides becomes more crucial.

The right results can deliver the goods to the on-a-mission customer who knows exactly what she wants, or save the sale for a browsing customer who's become overwhelmed. So while site search may not represent your point of view, it's worthy of your attention.

When we Google search, success is easily defined: Scanning the results page, we need to see text links that seem likely to lead to relevant information. But shopping search is different. Relevance still matters, but it's not enough.

Site search needs to help your visitor choose and buy, as well as find. Success is about more than the best possible algorithm. Presentation, merchandising, available help and refinements all make a difference.

Try a self-eval of the experience site search offers on your site.

How easy is it to find the search box? Sounds basic, but it's critical. Successful search boxes are clearly labeled “Search.” They offer a large form field and a clearly labeled submit button. They're found in a standard location at the top of the page, close to your primary navigation.

Avoid confusing your visitors by placing your search box too close to that other form field on the page — your e-mail sign-up box.

Site-search results pages: Type in some terms terms pulled from the list of your site's top 50 searches and take a critical look at the pages your site returns.

  • Are the results introduced by a clear scannable headline, labeled as search results and echoing the search term?
  • Are the results accurate and relevant, or is your tool casting a net that's too wide or too narrow?
  • Is the ordering of the results logical, learnable and consistent? Easy to change?
  • Do your guided navigation links offer useful refinements that differentiate products and help your shopper choose, or are they long lists of features pulled straight from your internal database or manufacturer's owner's manual?
  • Is your search smart enough to avoid letting the shopper paint herself into a corner, or can choosing multiple refinements lead to a “sorry, no matching products” message?
  • Do your search results page cater to more than one type of shopper? Some shoppers like guided navigation, others respond to traditional merchandising tactics such as hero product recommendations.
  • Do any searches return “dead end” no results pages? Or does the site always suggest alternatives when no matching product is found?
  • Do the pages provide clearly visible contact info for help from real people, or does “Search Help” consist of long blocks of “how to search” text, more likely to frustrate your shopper than actually be read?
  • Do search results pages function as strong entry pages to your site? Do they showcase the reasons to buy from you — and not from your competitors?

Measuring Success

Because site search provides rich, straight-from-the-customer's mouth (or keyboard) data, you need to include it within your ongoing site analytics work.

Here are 15 useful KPIs and metrics for tracking your progress with site search.

  1. % conversions / searching visitors
  2. $ /searching visitor
  3. % search exits
  4. Customer satisfaction with site search
  5. Top phrases searched
  6. Top categories searched
  7. Top concepts searched
  8. Top queries with no results
  9. Top queries w/ no results clicked
  10. Pages where searches begin…and end
  11. Top queries resulting in paging
  12. Top queries resulting in additional searches
  13. Top (and bottom) attributes utilized (guided nav)
  14. Top spelling corrections
  15. Segmentation: top searches for high $ customers; top searches for best external search keywords etc.

With a tip of the hat to Avinash Kaushik, notice that the first four items on the list are outcomes — they report on what your site search ultimately makes happen — measured in conversions, dollars and exits, as well as customer satisfaction. To move each of these outcomes in the right direction requires that you consistently tune and improve your site search based on the supporting metrics that round out the list.

For example, a high percentage of site exits on a given search term could be attributed to something obvious — say, no matching results. But it could also be caused by poor relevance, indicated by pages with no results clicked.

Mining your site-search analytics will also allow you to make proactive choices about your site navigation, content and design. Review lists of popular searches to understand the language your customer uses to describe your products, and then reflect this language in your links and copy.

Shopping for a site-search solution

If you're responsible for the customer experience or merchandising on your site, you may find yourself charged with choosing software for your company's next generation of site search.

To prepare and shop wisely, one of the best things you can do is to understand exactly what needs to happen after the contract is signed. Speaking generally, there are several steps common to implementing any site- search system.

  1. Integrate the search application with your data. For a retailer, that's the product catalog and supporting content.
  2. Tune the initial results. Net neither too narrow nor too wide.
  3. Integrate with your e-commerce platform. So people can buy stuff.
  4. Design your interface. Most top-tier solutions provide templates — they may or may not suit your needs.
  5. Define and apply business rules. Decide which offers, featured products, etc are presented based on which customer actions.
  6. Define metrics and integrate reporting. See the list above
  7. Set up the people processes. Figure out who's going to get things running, keep it going, and make it sing.

Now, think Groundhog Day: If you're serious about optimizing your site search, you're not just taking those seven steps once; you're taking them over and over and over again. Your site search needs to keep pace with changes to your product assortment, your offers, the design of your site, and findings from your analytics.

Mike Moran, IBM Distinguished Engineer for IBM's OmniFind search and text analytics products, points out that retailers often overlook a critical factor when selecting site-search software: the ease with which the system can be continually modified to meet the site's needs. Moran sees rapid experimentation as fundamental to online marketing success — his book Do It Wrong Quickly is a practical handbook on the subject — and he sees ongoing iteration as necessary for success with site search, too.

“Site owners need to look at a potential solution and ask, How am I going to change this on day 2? On week 7? Six months from now and a year from now? Who's going to do that work, and what kind of operational relationships and training will be needed?” So as you shop for site search, ask each vendor, or the team building your in-house system: “How do we change it, and who's going to do it?”

Have any tips or "a-ha-s" you've discovered optimizing your own site search? Please share them with our readers. May your site search sell!

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