Online retailers are losing business because they are failing to exploit the full potential of search technology, analyst group Gartner has claimed.
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Despite improvements in search technology, retailers only rate a B- when it comes to helping shoppers find what they are looking for, said Gartner analyst Gene Alvarez.
“If you don’t get the search phrase exactly right, you may get a null search or products you are not looking for,” he told Computer Weekly.
"If people don’t find something after a couple of tries, they think the retailer has not got it and leave," he said.
Businesses can boost sales by investing in personalisation and analytics tools which provide intelligent responses to customer queries, said Alvarez.
Complex search terms
One area where search often falls down is when customers type in more complex searches.
For example, internal search engines may be able to deliver a list of results for the search term “hat”, but would struggle to find specific results when a customer searches for a “red hat”.
“We are moving more towards phrases verses single search words. If someone puts in 'jewellery', it means go to the jewellery category, but if somebody puts in 'sparkly jewellery', they want to go to diamonds,” said Alvarez.
Retail search technologies
Endeca – Well-regarded commerce search engine, acquired by Oracle
Exorbyte – German supplier, features detailed reporting and analytics
Google Commerce – Cloud service, offers a simple and appealing interface, but less sophisticated than some alternatives
IBM WebSphere Commerce – Includes a search solution, featuring support for AB testing and SEO
BayNote – Recommendation engine
Steelhouse – Recommendation engine
Open source search tools, such as Solr, set up personalised search pages for shoppers which remember which products they are interested in when they visit the site.
Other tools, such as Oracle Endeca, can help web retailers refine search results, which ensures customers receive a narrow choice of relevant products, rather than a large number of less relevant results.
Another technique is to create a dedicated search page containing filters that allow customers to narrow down their search.
Retailers can also use intelligent search engines to recommend suitable alternatives if products are out of stock.
For example, a site might direct a customer towards sports jackets, if other outdoor jackets are out of stock.
By carrying out comparative tests, retailers can work out how best to respond to specific search terms, a process known as AB testing.
For example, someone searching for a man’s jacket could be presented with a page mixing jackets with related items to encourage cross-selling
Alternatively, they could be taken to a page that only shows only a large selection of jackets, which will help them find the jacket they are looking for in less time.
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Search a competitive weapon
Search engine optimisation (SEO) for external search sites, such as Google or Yahoo, is just as important, said Alvarez.
Retailers need to review how they tag their products, buy appropriate adwords, and use web analytics software to monitor how effective these processes are, he said.
A common mistake is to take a customer to a general product category web page, rather than to a page displaying the specific items the customer wants.
Another common mistake is to buy adwords that relate to retailing terms, such as “outerwear”, rather than terms customers use, such as “hats", "coats", or "jackets.”
Retailers should also adjust their SEO to meet seasonal demands and fashion trends, said Alvarez.
Search is a competitive weapon for retailers, said Alvarez. “Any improvement in search leads to an overall improvement in sales conversions,” he said.