Ecommerce Search: Giving Control to the Consumer

ecommerce search

If you take a step back and remove your retail or trading or marketing or technology hat for a moment, doesn’t it seem ludicrous that we spend so much time trying to control what consumers see in ecommerce search?

Sure, we want to provide the consumer with guidance and support, but that is very different from the relatively prescriptive way that most ecommerce providers currently drive the customer journey. We extensively merchandise and personalize the search results, at significant effort, building on the notion that “the platform knows best.”

But is all of that effort actually paying off? Are consumers actually being engaged?

Has anyone stopped to consider whether the desire to control the customer journey is actually impeding the ability to deliver a better customer experience and achieve higher conversions? It’s time to evolve and start exploring what gains can be made if merchants dared to relinquish some of this control back to the consumer.

The idea of giving up control is not one that is often considered by ecommerce providers, yet this could in fact be the key to better performance.

It’s the Consumer’s Journey, After All

When consumers land on a site, merchants want to deliver a positive experience by tailoring the products shown. For example, in summer you display bathing suits more prominently; in winter it’s ski outfits. Modern ecommerce providers include so-called merchandising capability to allow such boosting or burying of products based on a set of (generally manually-entered) rules.

This is useful for the start of the consumer’s ecommerce search journey, when you want to steer the results in a direction that shows proven uplift, compared to simply using a random ordering.

On top of merchandising, modern ecommerce providers also use search engines with sophisticated personalization algorithms that tailor the results for a specific consumer. This uses third/second/first-party data and segmentation information (when available) to re-order the search results in line with an assumed purchase intent. In essence, trying to guess what the consumer is most likely to be interested in.

All of this merchandising and personalization effort is beneficial at the start of the customer journey. Your efforts to control what the consumer sees leads to more useful results for the consumer and higher conversion rates.

But… we should remember that all these efforts are part of a consumer search journey.

Merchandising and personalization assist the search, but what about the consumer and the journey?

The Elephant in the Room 

If you’re not careful, you could be in danger of forgetting the elephant in the room – the consumer – who is on a multi-step journey. At each step they learn about the available products and developing a better idea of their preferences, thereby forming or reshaping their purchase intent.

This purchase intent is far more powerful information than any predefined merchandising rules or personalization based on pre-assumed intent. Through consumer feedback, ecommerce providers should let the actual consumer intent become the driving force behind the tailoring of search results. Merchandising and guess-based personalization should gradually take a back seat.

“Control” over the ecommerce search process therefore naturally starts with the merchant but should quickly move to the consumer. If you focus too much on controlling the search, you’re actually in grave danger of getting in the consumer’s way, frustrating rather than delighting them.

Ecommerce search is based on a huge amount of implicit consumer data, allowing technology to build a picture in an attempt to predict what the user wants. There’s only one problem with this approach: Consumers themselves have a much better understanding of their real purchase intent than technology will ever be able to guess.

By ceding control, you can achieve the next level of conversion performance while simultaneously providing consumers with a better user experience.

Twan Vollebregt is Founder of Traverz