SLI Systems CEO on Sophisticated Site Search

A basic site search will match words and phrases, but a money-making site search will help consumers find what they are looking for and also suggest items they may not have known they needed. A leader in sophisticated site search is SLI Systems, and its CEO, Shaun Ryan, joined us recently to talk about it.

Practical eCommerce: How does a robust site search help ecommerce sites drive sales?

Shaun Ryan: “By enabling people to find what they want on the site and making it easier to find content on the site. People are more likely to make a purchase if they are able to find what they want.

“That can work a number of ways. First of all, we make sure that you have nice, relevant search results so that when people type in a particular keyword, they are able to find the products they are looking for. Also, giving people the right sort of focus so they can refine the results, and helping people with their query formation so that they type in the right keywords and [find] the products that they’re looking for.

“To give you an example, one feature that we offer will suggest keywords that match the characters that you’ve typed so far. That helps people formulate their queries properly, reduces mistaken typing and misspellings, and also makes them aware of exactly what you’ve got on the site.”

Practical eCommerce: How does a sophisticated site search differ from a regular site search?

Ryan: “The difference between a basic site search and a great site search is basically in the functionality and in how the user experiences it.

“To get into the specifics, the first one is relevant results. There’s a lot of expertise that goes into the layout of search results, or how much content you put into the search results. You typically want to have an image, a title, a description for other products, and the price. You may want to highlight if the product is on sale. So, you may have the regular price struck out and the on sale price there. You may want to provide filters so that people can see just the products that are on sale.

“Often, the search that comes with a shopping cart will only search for products, but you may have a lot of non-product content on the site that you want to make sure people can find, particularly for visitors that are early in the buying cycle. You may have how-to guides or you may have blog posts or videos, and a good site search will search all of that content.

“Another feature that we see as extremely useful is related searches, where on the search results page will say ‘here are some related terms’ to the term that you typed. That helps users become aware of other related products that you may have on your site, or related content.

“Also, paying attention to what people are searching for is extremely important. You can get a lot of extremely valuable information by watching what people are typing in the search box and making sure that you have relevant content for that. That’s really valuable information that you can action on.”

PeC: How does your solution know from one ecommerce merchant to the next what is a related item and what is not?

Ryan: “We learn related search terms by observing the terms people use to find products. If two different search terms are used to find the same product, then we form a relationship between those two search terms. The more products they have in common, the stronger the relationship. We’ve developed an algorithm for automatically extracting those related search terms from the terms that people are typing on your website and we’ve got a patent application for that particular algorithm.”

PeC: How does your search solution integrate with a merchant’s website?

Ryan: “The way that works, typically, is that customers will set up a subdomain. For example, if you go to and search for “red roses,” then the search results will be hosted on the subdomain It’s pretty easy for retailers to set it up. They just have to create a subdomain, point it to our servers, and then we do the rest of it.”

PeC: What are some current developments in search?

Ryan: “One of the new things we’ve been working with recently is on the display side of search, using AJAX to power search. This means when you do a search, and you didn’t do a refinement or you clicked on a related search or reorder results, the whole page doesn’t reload. The query goes up to the server and the products appear in the search results, and because we’re not reloading the whole page, the experience is a lot snappier for the user and it just seems a lot quicker and smoother experience.

“Another smaller user interface trend that we’re seeing on search is the use of mouse over pop-ups. This is when you have a number of products displayed on a grid form. [Normally you have to] click into the products, look at the large image on the product page, click back, go to the next one, click on that… But, with these mouse over pop-ups, you just hover over the image, a large image pops up and you can go to the next one. So, it makes it easy for you to examine the details of the products without lots of clicks and new page loads.

“Another point I want to touch on is mobile sites. A lot of the mobile experience is based around search because you don’t have lots of room to create all the navigational links or the promotional links that you traditionally have on your home page. So, having a good search is extremely important for a mobile version of a shopping cart, and we’ve been working with a number of our customers to create mobile versions of their search navigation.”

PeC: Why should a merchant not just use Google Custom Search?

Ryan: “What you don’t get with Google Custom Search that you get with us is our search learns from people who use it and keeps getting better. So, the relevance of our search is better.

“Also, we provide added service. We’ll talk to you about your requirements, how you want your search presented, how you want the relevance to work, and work with you to make sure that the search works for your business. With the Google Custom Search, it’s completely self-service.

“Thirdly, we’ve got a way of using the site search data to automatically help search engine optimization, and the Google one doesn’t do that.

“Fourthly, because we run the search for 400 different retailers, and we’re constantly learning from all of them about ways to improve the search, the service keeps on getting better. We share those lessons that we learned across all of our customers.”

PeC: Anything else on your mind for our readers?

Ryan: “We have recently produced a whitepaper that we call the Big Book of Site Search Tips, and it is available as a free download on our website. You don’t have to be an SLI customer. I recommend that everyone download it and see if there are tips that you can apply to your business.”

PEC Staff
PEC Staff
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