By almost any measure, high-level site search increases sales. The need for sophisticated site search is becoming increasingly important for ecommerce merchants, who serve an increasingly sophisticated consumer base. To discuss trends in site search and new developments in that industry, we spoke recently with Shaun Ryan, CEO of SLI Systems, a pioneering site search provider.
Practical eCommerce: What is hosted site search?
Shaun Ryan: "It's a service for ecommerce sites where the search results page you see is served by a third party. The whole site search page comes from us [the search provider], which means we're able to build for the flash features of site search and do your search for you. You don't have to install any software. We do all the work for you in building that search and maintaining that search."
PEC: Walk us through how that works. Say I'm a merchant that sells cooking supplies, and I want to use your site search on my site. How do I get all my items to you, and what do the results look like?
Ryan: "We get a data feed of all your products, which is very similar to the sort of data feed you may supply to a comparison shopping engine like the Google feed that basically is a file that contains all the data about your products. The title, the descriptions, the images, the prices, the categories, the brand, all of that information. We take that data feed, build an index, and we'll build a search results page using our best practices and we'll talk with you and work with you to make the search results look exactly how you want them to look.
"Once the search is built and it's live, you just change your search box to point to the search that we built. The search will then start learning and improving based on what people search for and what they're clicking on. Once it's live, you'll start getting some reporting about what people are searching, and that provides another way for you to continuously improve the search results. You may see that people are searching for things that you don't have or they may be using a different language than what you're using on your site. You can then start to address those issues."
PEC: For those merchants who don't think they need a robust search solution, what do you say to them?
Ryan: "Well, first of all, it depends on what solution you have at the moment and how well it works. One of the biggest mistakes people make is they often say, 'Yes, we've got a search,' and then they don't pay any further attention to it. People who search will often convert at two or three times the rate of people who don't search. So it's really important that you put some effort into making sure that your results are relevant.
"We've been doing this for 10 years, but even now I'm still amazed of having sites I go to where you do a search and you just get irrelevant results. It's an experience we're all familiar with and it's extremely frustrating for someone who comes to your site if they had that experience. So, by putting a good search technology, you can sort of get rid of that experience and improve it significantly.
People are able to find what they're looking for through good search or good navigation. If they can find what they're looking for, they're more likely to make a purchase. We often see that ecommerce merchants who switch out the existing search that came with their ecommerce platform and put ours in, we see a huge increase in the conversion rate of people who are using search. It can be as high as two or three times depending on how bad their existing search is."
PEC: Speaking of consumers going to an ecommerce site and getting no results on a search, tell us some of the most common search mistakes — by merchants — that your company sees.
Ryan: "The first mistake is just not paying attention to it. You should be looking at what people are searching for. That's the language of the visitors who are coming to your site, and you don't get an opportunity to get that information from any other place. When they're typing keywords into that box, they're saying, 'This is what I want and this is the language I use.' Once you look at that, you can then start improving. You can do those searches yourself and have a look at the search results and say, 'If someone types this, this is what I want to be showing them,' and then once you start looking at that, you start thinking about improving the search.
"Just to give you an example, you may sell MP3 players. Now, maybe people are searching for MP3 players, but they may be more likely searching for 'music players' or maybe even a generic 'iPod.' So, if you don't have the words 'music player' on your MP3 player product page, then people aren't going to find the MP3 player if they type in music player, for example.
"You can also address it by adding synonyms so that if someone searches for a music player, they'll see MP3 players. One example is on Motorcycle Superstore, [an SLI client.] They sell all sorts of different motorcycle parts and one of the other names for backrest is sissy bar. So, they have a synonym so that if you type in 'backrest', you'll see sissy bar because not every sissy bar has the word backrest in the product."
PEC: In that example, a person is using a term that previously wasn't on that merchant's site, suddenly now sees the product they're looking for, buys the product, and conversions have increased. Is that it?
Ryan: "Yeah, and the process is they'll [Motorcycle Superstore] probably see the word backrest appearing in a list of searches with poor results. So they'll see there are people searching for that and their results aren't very good. They may have results, but they don't have very good click-through. If they look at the search results page and they see, 'Ah, this is what the search results look like. They're not seeing the products that we know we have,' and they know their products and they say, 'Oh, they're looking for sissy bars,' and once they add their knowledge to that, they can then address that problem and make sure those results are better than what they were before."
PEC: What about navigation? Can it complement site search?
Ryan: "Often when people are searching for product, they may be using the navigation on your site. They're searching for a product, they're just not doing it by typing in a keyword. The keyword search and the navigation are both searching experiences and a lot of the lessons from site search can also be applied to navigation. You want to make sure that the user interface is often very similar. You want to make sure that those two experiences are the same sort of user interface so that your users don't have to learn two different interfaces, one when they're searching and one when they're navigating."
PEC: They can see what people are searching for and adjust the navigation accordingly?
Ryan: "Looking at what they search for can help the navigation. Those keywords are some of the keywords that you should be including in your navigation links. To go back to that Motorcycle Superstore, if you have a category for sissy bars, but mostly your visitors actually call them backrests, then maybe you shouldn't call that category sissy bars; you should call it backrests because that's the keyword that's going to resonate with your visitors. They're going to see that keyword if they're looking for backrests and be more likely to click on it than they would be to click on a sissy bar link."
PEC: Let's focus on SLI for a moment. What new products are you working on?
Ryan: "Well, I'll talk about three things. One of the things we released is our 'Rich Auto Complete.' We've had auto complete for quite a few years now, which is as you start typing, you see search suggestions, below the search box. With Rich Auto Complete, we've expanded it so that not only do you see search suggestions, but you'll also see products. For example, if you start typing in jackets, by the time you type J-A-C-K, you'll start to actually see pictures of the most popular jackets under the search box. It's a little bit like the Google Instant Product in that you can get straight to the search results from the search box itself. We've seen that about 30 percent of people who search will interact with Rich Auto Complete and that the people that do will convert to about twice the rate of the people that don't.
"We've recently released a product we call 'Conversion Optimizer' that lets our merchants compare different versions of the search results page, and see which one converts the best. They can split the traffic among different pages, and they can see which page converts the best. There's a myriad of things that you can test on a search or navigation page with the conversion optimizer product. That product is just being rolled out and it's really exciting. I expect we'll see some really nice improvements and conversion rates as the customers start using that product.
"The final one we've been doing is what we call a merchandizing banner. When someone comes from Google and lands on a page, we'll look at the keyword they use on Google and populate the banner with products for that keyword, so that not only do you see the products that Google ranked top, but you'll see other popular products that are related to the keyword you typed on Google. We just started rolling this out to our customers and they also have seen some fantastic results in terms of the uplifting conversion rates of people that are landing on pages with this banner.
"Say, you've done a search for jackets on Google, and it lands on a product page on your site. What we'll do is we look at the referral URL, pull out that keyword for jacket, do a search for jackets, and show other jackets, so four or five of the most popular jackets are in a banner that's somewhere on that product page. It just makes people aware of that you've got other jackets on the site other than the one that they landed on and helps improve the conversion rates significantly for the customers that have tried it out."
PEC: What's a merchant going to pay for SLI's services?
Ryan: "It depends on the volume of queries that we'll serve on their behalf. Our smallest merchants are paying as little as $715 a month. That gives them 15,000 searches a month, and then as the volume of searches goes up, the price goes up. It scales so we can service relatively small businesses, but also very large businesses. To give you some idea, for our largest customer, we'll supply hundreds of millions of queries a month."