Sports Collectible Site Powers up Major League Search

Very often, people outgrow the things that seemed crucially important when they were kids: building models, collecting baseball cards, riding horses. Putting aside the question of whether that’s a good thing, the same can be said of companies: sometimes the platforms and features that served them well at start-up just don’t satisfy their needs as they mature.

That was the case with Beckett Media, a sports publishing company that struck gold selling sports trading cards and collectibles on the Web way back in the rookie years of 1995. Before that time, Beckett, founded in 1984 by a statistics professor with a taste for sports, had used its Web site mainly to take subscriptions for its sports-fan magazines. Now it set up an e-commerce platform that would help merchandise the cards, autographs and other merchandise being sold in the brick-and-mortar stores of the company’s affiliated dealers. Users could go to the Beckett Web site, search for the items they want, and find links to the dealers from whom they could buy the merchandise.

And the online business took off. Beckett now has 165 affiliated dealers, 4 million SKUs in its inventory, and did $13 million in e-commerce sales in 2005. But as its online business grew, the company began to notice that its Web site did not have the stamina to keep up with that pace. Specifically, the site’s search capabilities were not meeting the new needs of either Beckett or its customers, crashing frequently. Not only did that mean downtime for the site and a poor customer experience; it also was keeping the company from valuable merchandising information that could boost sales and improve Beckett’s search marketing efforts.

“We started out using Alta Vista, which was the best [site search] platform available at the time,” says Beth Grimsley, e-commerce director for Beckett. Its full-text-index technology was state of the art in 1995 and perfectly appropriate for a company that featured mostly content, with some merchandise on the side. But the site search’s relevance stats were in the cellar; users could turn up thousands of pages with content related to “Lou Gehrig”, but would not be able to sort the cards, collectibles and articles that turned up without crawling through those results pages with a second search.

Just as importantly, Grimsley says, the old search only told Beckett what people had searched for in the past, via search log reports that the IT department ran once a week. It didn’t provide enough actionable information that could spot growing trends and suggest what customers might be looking for in two days or two weeks.

In February, Beckett was sold to New York-based Apprise Media, and quickly began a six-month review of new site search platforms, wanting to get ready for the 2005 holiday shopping season. The company settled on an off-the-shelf solution from Endeca Technologies, primarily because the company had proven results with other e-commerce operators dealing with the same large-scale inventory that Beckett offered.

“We have a very large data set, and they already had big clients,” Grimsley says. “They weren’t going to be custom-building something just for us, which was a risk I wasn’t interested in taking.” In the sports-card and memorabilia business, she points out, inventory never goes out of stock; it only grows, so any search platform had to be very scalable.

With the new site search, built on Endeca’s Guided navigation platform, users can enter terms in Google fashion and come up with the specific items they’re seeking immediately. They can then sort those results by price, condition (a big factor for card collectors), and quantity, to make shopping easier for resellers who may be looking to buy multiples of Mark McGwire’s rookie card.

Speaking of dealers, going with Endeca also gave Beckett’s Web site the ability to offer its dealer affiliates the chance to pay for sponsored listing status in the search results pages. Now Beckett “power dealers” can pay to get premium position within the relevant search results—also in Google fashion.

Additionally, the Endeca landing-page template would allow Beckett to place links to relevant online articles from its 20-year archive of sports and collecting content on the results pages. “We’ve only begun to fight on the content side, because we really wanted the e-commerce implementation up and running for the 2005 holiday season,” Grimsley says. “But integrating commerce and content is very important to us.”

Sports is news, and news events such as the death in March of Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame centerfielder Kirby Puckett will inevitably elicit comments in Beckett Media’s message boards. “Having that content displayed alongside trading merchandise can be very powerful and sets us above our competition, such as eBay,” Grimsley says. “We usually don’t compete with them on price, but our edge is the customer experience.”

Beckett can also offer product recommendations—most often the products with the highest margin related to a search—and can be used to do a general search on a player, a team or other criterion—especially useful when collectors don’t know have a particular item in mind, just a topic or subject.

The new site search has also helped with cross-selling and contextual selling. When Giants slugger Barry Bonds was chasing home run 715 earlier this season, Beckett was able to detect that the effort was also lifting searches done on other power hitters of the past. So the company mounted a special “Chasing History” banner that also featured items related to Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and other members of the 500-homerun fraternity. “This lets us not just define these sales opportunities but create them,” Grimsley says.

And Grimsley and her nine-person department are now continually mining site search data for upcoming trends and growing interests in order to be able to give the hottest collectibles featured positioning on the non-results portions of the results pages. For example, one phenomenon among collectors is “prospecting”: buying up the cards of players who show promise before the season opens, in the hope that their value will skyrocket when they get on the field. As a media company, Beckett has its own stable of scouting experts, of course (“All the water-cooler talk around here is about sports,” Grimsley says), but it’s an added benefit to be able to spot the rookie players that collectors are searching in expectation of big things.

“It used to be that we were on top of these trends after the fact,” Grimsley says. “We weren’t really able to participate. Now we’re able to anticipate and thus participate by watching the activity of our search users.” For two weeks this March, Ian Kinsler, a second-base phenom on the Texas Rangers’ farm team during spring training, showed up among the top 20 searches on the Beckett site, a slot usually reserved for the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan. That indicated enough proctor interest to earn Kinsler some featured marketing on the site—at least until he injured his hand stealing a base, at which point his stock slipped.

In addition, monitoring what people are looking for can unearth some surprising results for new product lines. After installing the new site search platform, Grimsley was surprised to find that “jewelry” was one of the most commonly searched terms at “That tells me that I need my sales guys to get behind sports jewelry because this is a big opportunity,” she says.

Watching those search logs can also improve the customer experience by red-flagging dead-end searches for correction. It also helps make sure that you’re translating the terms customers use to search into the formats used on your site; for example, many users might not realize that Beckett’s price guides commonly abbreviate “rookie card” to “RC”. And watching the search logs can also point out common misspellings that may require auto-corrections. (Apparently, it’s amazing how many people search for Shackeel O’Neill.)

Beckett also uses those site-search reports to feed back into its search marketing program on general search engines such as Google and Yahoo! and vertical shopping sites like and Froogle. When Kinsler was hot, the company bid on his name as a search term, as they did for Reggie Bush and some of the other top NFL draft prospects when that was impending.

How do you set up a search marketing campaign when your stock is constantly growing and your field, at least potentially, is the entire world of American professional sports, including NASCAR? Besides poring over the search logs, Grimsley and her team hold regular meetings with the editors at Beckett to learn which names should be watched. She keeps a whiteboard of hot prospects outside her office to which anyone can add a name.

On-site search activity also helps Beckett sort the conversion wheat from the looky-lou chaff, so to speak. A sports collectible site has a particular problem defining conversions, since many of the users who travel there from general search are simply looking to price cards and collectibles that they already own. So figuring out which search terms produce sales as opposed to traffic is particularly crucial. Beckett watches search-term conversions within its own site using WordTracker and uses those results to guide its selection of the most effective search marketing keywords.

What’s next for Beckett? A revamp of its Web analytics similar to the treatment it gave site search. “Many of the current analytics packages are designed to show what parts of your site are producing revenue,” Grimsley says. “We’re in the unique position of having to analyze both content and commerce. We also want to see what content people are going to. Like site search, I need something that’s going to be extensible, and finding that’s been a bit of a challenge. I’m looking for the same type of thing from analytics that I got from search: We need it to do everything.”

Striking that commerce/content balance is important in keeping Beckett competitive with other collectible sites, including eBay. “We started out so far on the content side in 1995 that no one thought to shop here,” Grimsley says. “Then we compensated and went way over to the commerce side. Now we realize that to make the pendulum balance, we need to be somewhere in the middle.” Content makes a vital contribution to the shopping experience—one that other collectible sites can’t necessarily match.

“It’s like buying sports equipment,” Grimsley says. “You can buy shotgun shells at Wal-Mart, and you’ll pay less. But you’re buying from a guy behind a counter who may not even know what they can do. Or you can shop at Cabela’s, where you’ll pay a bit more but shop in a hunting nirvana with an expert who can talk about what you need. It’s all about the customer experience.”

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