Merchants contemplating mobile optimized sites may also consider specialized mobile site search. SLI Systems is a provider of ecommerce site search solutions and that company has just launched a mobile search option. Shaun Ryan is the company’s CEO, and he recently discussed mobile commerce and mobile search with us.
Practical eCommerce: Why does an ecommerce site need special mobile-optimized site search?
Shaun Ryan: “Well, it’s for the same reason that you need a mobile-optimized version of your site. You want to make sure that your site search is optimized for the mobile devices. I’m sure you’re familiar with site search. It can be quite a complicated beast. There are often a lot of refinement options, a lot of sort options, such as displaying the results in a grid format, that wouldn’t fit into the small screen. So, you need to make sure the presentation of the search is optimized for that small screen so that your visitors can see the products that they’re looking for without having to zoom in and pan around.”
PEC: How does your system detect that a user is on a mobile device?
Ryan: “That’s normally done by our customers on their web servers. When someone goes to the regular site, the servers detect the mobile device and from there, the search is pointed to the mobile-optimized search. Their mobile sites will then just point to our mobile search. There’s no detection needed to be done by us because people will be coming from the mobile-optimized site to our site search.
“It’s worth saying that on a mobile site, you have very little room for a lot of navigation options that you would do on your regular site. So, the site search is a really important part of that whole experience because it provides a way of displaying potentially a huge catalog very quickly in a way that would be difficult to do through [non-search] navigation when you can’t have a whole lot of navigation options on a screen. If you go to Amazon, you’ll notice that on its mobile site, it’s dominated by the search.”
PEC: Are there separate backend management consoles on your solution for merchants managing mobile search versus traditional search?
Ryan: “At this stage, it’s pretty much the same. [But] it can be something specific to mobile. For example, one of the features our site search allows you to put banners on search results pages from particular keyword. You may want to have different banners on your mobile search than you would on your core site search product. So, there is the ability to merchandise differently on your mobile search as opposed to your regular search.”
PEC: Are you finding that search patterns for mobile search users are different from traditional site search patterns? Are there any differences that would cause merchants to want to refine site search for the mobile in a different way than they would do traditional site search?
Ryan: “To tell you the truth, it really is early days for this. We just launched our product about three weeks ago. We’ve been building out mobile search across sort of a handful of our early adopter customers. So, we really are working out the best practices for mobile search.
“One of the core differences is being able to provide some of the same functionality that you have on the regular search without taking up a lot of space. For example, you may have a whole lot of different refine options, such as what category or manufacturer or color. If you were to show all of those options on the mobile search, it would dominate the page and your products would be pushed way down below the fold. So, we’ve developed a technique where the refinements can just take up one line and when you click on a refinement, it expands and you can see the broad types the refinements you can do, then you can click on one of those. So, it’s the same functionality, but it’s just sort of hidden away so it doesn’t take up much space.”
PEC: Does a merchant need to be an existing SLI customer to use the mobile search capability?
Ryan: “Well, we could build a mobile search for someone who’s not an existing SLI customer. But for an existing SLI customer, we already have all the data. We know the way they want it.”
PEC: Does the same percentage of traditional site visitors who use search hold for mobile visitors, too? Is the percentage more or less for mobile site search?
Ryan: “I’m not sure, but my instinct tells me that there will be more people searching on a mobile device because mobile doesn’t have the same [non-search] navigational options. You don’t have room for the same navigational options on a mobile device and so people would gravitate toward search.”
PEC: At what point do traditional sites and mobile site converge? I’m thinking about an iPad. Would you consider an iPad a mobile device or a traditional laptop device?
Ryan: “It’s a very good question and something we ask ourselves. Most sites I see treat the iPad screen as a regular computer screen. So, they don’t have an iPad-optimized version or they don’t send people to the mobile-optimized version of their site. Normally the iPad is, in my opinion, good enough that you don’t need to have a mobile-optimized version. But I see recently that Amazon brought out an iPad-optimized version of its website.
“So, for a retailer, it comes down to a matter of resources. If you’re seeing there’s a large number of your visitors on the iPad, then it may be worthwhile coming out with an iPad-optimized version of your website, as well. I don’t think you want to send them to the same site you’d send them to if they’re on an iPhone or some other phone, because that’s really optimized for a much, much smaller screen. It’s going to come down to a matter of how many resources you have to optimize for an iPad versus the return on investment for that optimization. But it’s definitely worth taking a look at and you should certainly be looking at your regular site on your iPad to see how well it functions. And, there are some things, such as mouseover functionality, that you just can’t replicate on the iPad.”
PEC: Anything else on your mind today relating to mobile commerce and mobile search?
Ryan: “It is still the early days for mobile. But I recommend that retailers sort of dip their toes in the water, so to speak, if they haven’t already. There’s still a large number that haven’t got any plans to bring out a mobile-optimized version of their sites. I recommend they take a look at their analytics to see how many people are already visiting their sites on mobile devices. [There are a] bunch of low cost solutions available to start to get some experience in creating a mobile-optimized version of your website.”