Practical Ecommerce

A Great Number of Products Requires Great Search

As an online store’s product catalog grows it becomes increasingly important to provide site visitors with a robust and feature-rich search solution to help them find just the right product as quickly as possible while also providing an enjoyable shopping experience. The larger and more complex your product offerings become, the more you need to provide a high quality search solution.

Effective Ecommerce Search

Algolia’s Instant Search demonstration is part of a tutorial written to help web and application developers learn to use the San Francisco-based company’s hosted search application programming interface (API).

The Algolia instant search demonstration includes many of the features that make for a great ecommerce search.

The Algolia instant search demonstration includes many of the features that make for a great ecommerce search.

Although it is something of an academic example, the demo is delightful to use. As you type, it provides search suggestions not as a dropdown, but by swapping out page content. The words you type are highlighted on the various product entries shown, so that it is easy to understand why the search engine chose each result. Finally, it is lightning fast, returning a new, more refined set of products with each keystroke.

In short, it is a good example of an effective ecommerce search solution, because it delivers, if you will, in three ways.

  1. It provides a shortcut to content.
  2. It shows you what it is thinking.
  3. It works quickly.

A Shortcut to Content

If you think about it, your site’s search is a shortcut to content. Rather than making a shopper click on the main product navigation to uncover several product category options, which lead to even more sub-category options, which direct us — we hope — to a set of products, the shopper can bypass the site hierarchy and go directly to the set of products she wanted to see.

When this happens as expected, you have a happy customer who just saved time and effort.

This successful search shortcut depends on several component parts or features, including the way in which the search function finds matches and how the search is built to manage synonyms or related words.

Consider, first, how matches are found. Is the search querying a database? Is it conducting a full text search on some form of product data feed? Or is it crawling the site and indexing the content that it finds on each page?

How the search actually works will have a significant impact the results it presents and how quickly it presents them.

Next, how well does the search manage related terms? In a blog post about search synonyms, Algolia’s Julien Limoine used the example of the term “tablet.”

When a shopper starts to type “tablet” into a search box, should the search also match the term “iPad?” And does that relationship work the other way around? If a shopper types in the term “iPad,” should other tablet computers be shown in the results? Google seems to have answered this. On August 2, 2015 a search for “tablet” in Google Shopping returned iPads in the result set, but a search for “ipad” did not include results for other tablet computers. This makes sense because “iPad” is more specific than “tablet.”

Google's search understands the relationship between the terms "tablet" and "ipad" so that it provides the best results for each query. The search on your site should recognized these sorts of relationships too.

Google’s search understands the relationship between the terms “tablet” and “ipad” so that it provides the best results for each query. The search on your site should recognized these sorts of relationships too.

For a search shortcut to be truly great, it needs to understand some of these relationships, so it can provide the proper and expected results.

Show Why Terms Are Selected

If you search for the term “tablet” on the Newegg website, one of the suggestions is for Tabletop Unlimited, a kitchen supply brand, which offers, among other things, a square griddle and a jumbo cooker.

The search function on Newegg shows you what it is thinking and why some suggestions were chosen.

The search function on Newegg shows you what it is thinking and why some suggestions were chosen.

Newegg’s search returned this result because the term “tablet” is inside the term “tabletop.”

The search is trying to anticipate what the shopper wants, so this result makes perfect sense, but imagine what the shopper might have thought if the Newegg search had loaded a new page with a picture of an Asus tablet computer and a skillet.

If Newegg did not have Tabletop Unlimited products listed on its site, this would not be a problem, but because the site has many, diverse products — remember with a great number of products comes the need for great search — it must show shoppers why a particular suggestion is being offered.

Search Should be Fast

On the JadoPado site, search moves fast. As the user types, the search feature displays not just suggestions but actual products, updating the list of products displayed with each successive letter.

Switching out all of the products on the page in the blink of an eye, the JadoPado site search is nothing if it is not fast.

Switching out all of the products on the page in the blink of an eye, the JadoPado site search is nothing if it is not fast.

This means that the search function must reach out to the server, compare the term with the indexed content, and return a full result set in the time it take the shopper to press a key.

This flashy example of search speed is important because it gives the shopper instant feedback. A significant number of shoppers will refine their search one or more times to get the best results. Quickly showing the shopper the sorts of results a term will return, makes the process of refining search almost automatic. In fact, the shopper might not even realize that he is refining as he adds “computer” to the term “table” to eliminate a skillet or two.

This is especially important for Internet retailers with large product categories that may share key terms.

Armando Roggio

Armando Roggio

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  1. Oli October 15, 2015 Reply

    Algolia is really leading the way in this field. We integrated their API into the Stamplay development platform so our users can add their super fast search into their apps in a few clicks – faster than if they were to integrate the API on their own. It’s made a huge difference to the search performance of our users’ apps.

    If anyone’s interested in understanding how Stamplay’s Algolia API integration works, we actually created a pretty useful tutorial to demonstrate how quickly you can get it set up and running: https://blog.stamplay.com/how-to-create-a-book-club-app-with-angularjs-stripe-algolia-and-stamplay-tutorial/

  2. Kaustuva Mukherjee March 21, 2016 Reply

    What if new products are presented to the shoppers and they get to discover something new every moment?

    Search is the traditional approach when you know what you want to buy. What if you get to see new products that you love? Could that be the paradigm shift in e-commerce?