Search or Destroy

Oct 01, 2006 9:30 PM  By

Ever heard the one about the guy who wanted a relationship but ended up destroying each opportunity before it even started?

No, I’m not referring to the latest How to Find Your Soul Mate self-help book or last week’s edition of your favorite daytime TV talk show. I’m talking about how Internet retailers lose business because their site search fails to deliver relevant results to customers. So instead of developing long-term customer relationships, retailers end up destroying them before they even begin.

As an online merchant, you probably focus much of your time on Web marketing: analyzing keyword and e-mail campaigns, infiltrating chat rooms and blogs to spread the message and create brand recognition. It’s all well and good — you can’t drive site traffic without awareness, right?

Yes, clever creative tactics can entice people to click — but will they quickly find what they’re looking for upon arrival? Will they get relevant results as soon as they land on your site? Hopefully. If not, you won’t lose only one sale; you might lose that shopper forever, along with his dollars, his loyalty, and the likelihood of his urging friends to shop at your site. In short, you miss out on the shopper’s lifetime value.

When customers can’t find an item, they assume you don’t stock it, when there’s a chance they simply couldn’t find it. The last thing they’re thinking about is whether the search results were relevant. Why should they, when with a click or two of the mouse they can simply go elsewhere?

They don’t have a problem. You, on the other hand, do. It’s time to stop measuring success by the number of unique users you get each month. Heavy traffic doesn’t necessarily correlate to heavy sales. The ratio of visitors to buyers is really the true measure of success, so you need to pay more attention to conversion rates. And one of the best ways to improve conversion rates is by providing relevant on-site search results.

The root of irrelevant results

Devoting a great deal of time and resources to driving traffic to your site in itself does not cause irrelevant search results. What causes poor results is that marketing activities are given so much priority. On-site search becomes the ugly stepchild: at best barely noticed, at worst entirely ignored.

Irrelevant search results are also caused by the building of the engine itself. Some companies rely on their inhouse technical team to create a custom-built search function. But although these folks might be excellent Web developers or software engineers, they typically don’t have search-specific experience. Other companies opt for packaged products that come with grand promises and interesting features yet lack the capabilities needed to provide relevant results for large or niche merchandise selections.

Blame it on Google

What’s the big deal about relevance, anyway? People should be happy to find the desired item on page two, even three — that is, if they climbed into a time machine and traveled back to 1995, when we were impressed to get online results even remotely close to our expectations.

But along came Google. We tried it and got hooked on the relevant results. Now we’re spoiled by it. As we’ve become used to the increasingly relevant results delivered by Google, we expect every search to be equally effective. So much so that while the average consumer has very little patience in the real world, he has absolutely no patience in the virtual world.

According to a study sponsored by Watertown, MA-based SEM firm iProspect and conducted by Jupiter Research, most of us expect to find what we’re looking for on the first page of the search results: “62% of search engine users click on a search result within the first page of results, and a full 90% of users click on a result within the first three pages of search results.”

That means your site’s search functionality must be easy and intuitive, just like Google. Results have to be relevant and match what people expect to find. Users have to find the items they’re seeking right away. When the merchandise is not there, they’ll just move on to another site. The goal of your site search is to match user expectations with relevant results.

Taking measure

But how do you measure relevance? Traditionally companies have used focus groups to gather opinions, conduct testing, and assess the viability of a new product idea. That’s fine if you’re introducing a line of nonfat gourmet cookies, but relevancy is much more difficult to quantify.

Some online retailers try to collect feedback through usability testing, which is great for reviewing user interface design and site navigation. Like anything else, though, usability testing has its drawbacks. It can be expensive. Participants may not be representative of your target audience, especially from a psychological and economic standpoint. And the nature of the testing can’t always replicate the real-life conditions and situations under which people shop. (For tips on usability testing, see “It’s the user, stupid,” in the July issue of Multichannel Merchant.)

Another option is to add to your site a user feedback tool that makes it easy to measure and improve relevance while allowing you to capture all types of input from site visitors. The latest generation of feedback tools are like traditional feedback forms, but they can offer much more value. You can place these tools directly in the search area so that when users see a problem, they can immediately tell you about it rather than seek out the traditional form. Some of the better tools even track and compile this information, then deliver it to you in one report with practical recommendations. You don’t have to collate and analyze and format. That makes it easy for you to adjust search results, create more relevance, and ultimately drive more sales.

Without question, the success or failure of your online business is directly related to the relevance of search results. Much has been written about the importance of third-party search results; more marketers are now realizing the importance of on-site search results as well.


Dr. Shaun Ryan is cofounder/CEO of SLI Systems, a Cupertino, CA-based search technology firm.

Quick tips for improving on-site search relevancy

  • Create intuitive titles for the search results for your products, and increase the use of popular keywords in those titles. This improves relevancy on both your site search and other search engines.

  • Index only the relevant content associated with each product. In other words, for the results pages, don’t index navigational or other content that’s not related to the product. By creating concise results, you improve relevance.

  • Pay attention to results that have low click-through rates. Make sure that the keywords in the actual product pages are included in the results page. Some products get low clicks simply because the terminology in the search results doesn’t match what users type into the search fields. — SR