Practical Ecommerce

Ecommerce Site Search Evolves, without Google

Ecommerce site search — including Google’s announcement that it is dropping its Commerce Search platform — is our topic today. Dr. Shaun Ryan, CEO of SLI Systems, a leading site search provider, is our guest. He speaks with Practical Ecommerce’s Kerry Murdock.

Practical Ecommerce: Google recently announced that it was shutting down Commerce Search, its enterprise-level site-search product. You’re the CEO of a leading site search provider. What’s your view of Google’s announcement?

Shaun Ryan

Shaun Ryan

Shaun Ryan: “We obviously view it with a lot of interest when a competitor announces that it’s pulling out; particularly Google, whose name is synonymous with search.

“We weren’t that surprised, because we hadn’t seen them get that much traction in the market. When they first came to market as a competitor, we were a little worried because Google obviously has such a good name for search and are very well resourced. I think it might’ve been three years or so that they’ve been in the market, and they haven’t really got a lot of traction. I suspect that’s why they’ve pulled out in this form. For Google to continue to support a product, they need to make a lot of money to move the needle for their company, because it’s very large. If they weren’t getting any traction, then it really wouldn’t have been making much of a difference for them.”

PEC: Our impression of Commerce Search is it was for larger companies, with an entry-level price point of around $25,000 a year. Is that correct?

Ryan: “Yes. In fact, I think when Commerce Search first came out, it was at $50,000, and then, subsequently, they brought out another tier at $25,000. They were aiming for larger companies to be using this.

“I think if you looked at the top 1,000 retailers in the U.S., there were 30 that were using Google in some form or another, and only a portion of those were using Commerce Search.

“We didn’t see them get a lot of traction in the other markets we operate in. We would see them occasionally in Australia, occasionally in the U.K. I don’t know if we ever saw them in Brazil.”

PEC: There is Commerce Search. There’s also the regular site-search product that Google offers. Will that continue, the regular on-site search offering?

Ryan: “Yes. Google’s got a variety of site search products. They also have their Google Appliance as well. I think Commerce Search was commerce-specific. I’m not sure how many commerce-specific features the other products have.

“Because Google Commerce Search is a software-as-a-service delivery method and we’re the leading SaaS provider to the top thousand retailers in the U.S., we have a plug-in replacement where we can quickly get someone up and going that needs to switch off Google Commerce Search.”

PEC: Let’s change directions, and focus on mobile platforms — the rise of mobile tablets and smart phones in particular. Do consumers use site search differently on smaller-screen devices?

Ryan: “Yes, they definitely use it differently. Particularly on the phones, where there is a much smaller screen, the search needs to be laid out differently to provide the same functionality that you have on the large screen.

“For example, the facets, the refinements that you typically have on the left-hand side or the top, they take up a lot of room on the desktop version of the search. You need to have another approach for providing those same refinements that doesn’t take up all that room on a smaller screen.

“The way we normally do that is to have a single refinements link that, when you tap on it, opens up and you can choose which top-level type of refinements you want. You might want to refine by category or gender or brand. You click on that and then select your brand. It opens up as you need it to. The experience is optimized for the small screen. That makes a big difference. It means that you can have the same functionality, but it works on that small screen.

“One of the other differences is when you’re typing, it is more difficult to type on a mobile device, be it a phone or tablet, with the on-screen keyboards.

“One of the really useful typing features that we have on the desktop search is particularly useful on the mobile is auto complete. When you start typing, you can see search terms and you can see products. This just means that it helps people query information. It means that they don’t necessarily have to type out their whole query because they can just click on one of the suggestions that come up. The auto complete that will show products as you type is even more important on a mobile device.

“We have a separate set of best practices for mobile devices that our customers can use. We’ve got a plan for adoption that most of our customers with mobile-optimized versions of their websites use now. They want to have a mobile-optimized version of the search experience.

“We see a trend where more and more merchants are realizing the value of specialized search, because they realize that they can easily get some brands on the table and improvements in conversion rates by using a specialized search vendor such as SLI. Search is really difficult to do right, and most retailers don’t have the skills to build a good search in-house. Their core business is online retailing, not sophisticated search technology. We’re going to see trends toward more and more people using specialized search.

“On top of that, for the larger companies, I think it’s going to be more common to have a dedicated search merchandiser. A person who’s responsible for a search page and who is looking at the analytics that come from the people that are searching, and making sure that that information is used correctly across the business — and also using that information to try to further optimize the search page through banners, tweaking the rankings of the search, etc. We see that being more and more common.”

PEC: Help us understand how a sophisticated platform can help an online retailer.

Ryan: “First of all, you’ve got to make sure that your search is returning relevant results. It is still extremely common that you’ll type in keywords, and it’s just embarrassing the results that come up. We see bad search and poor relevance. When that happens, visitors are frustrated and are more likely to leave your site and go somewhere else. If you can get the relevance right, you’re going to increase your conversion rates. That’s first and foremost.

“There are a lot of best practices on how to lay out the search results. What size should your images be? Should it be in a grid view or list view? What sort of refinements should you have? What order should those refinements be in? Where should the refinements be placed? You want to be integrating with ratings and reviews.

“It’s also really important to look at the search analytics. It’s really interesting to see what people are searching for on your website. What is the language that they’re using to describe your own products? Often, it’s different than the language the retailer uses to describe its own products. That’s really useful to know, because you want to make sure that you’re using the same language where possible that your visitors are using. Or if they’re using different language, you want to make sure they can still find what they’re looking for using their own language.”

PEC: Anything else?

Ryan: “One other trend we’re seeing is more and more retailers are doing content marketing, where they’re creating content to attract and engage customers and prospects. This may be videos, articles, or how-to guides. This is useful for search engine optimization and for social media.

“With site search, you need to be able to search through that. We’re seeing more retailers’ using site search not just for their products, but also for all the content that they’re producing. When visitors come to the website and see a search box, they expect to be able to find whatever it is they’re looking for there, not just products.”

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Comment ( 1 )

  1. Konstantin Molchanov July 26, 2013 Reply

    Thank you for a great article!

    I wonder what would Shaun’s advice be for an eCommerce search engine startup.

    We (I mean the Searchanise developer team) are currently trying to conquer wide markets on various eCommerce platforms.

    What would an ideal strategy for a free service be in this case?

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