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GUEST COMMENT Searching for the best experience: why consistent optimisation will impress digital shoppers

Digital shoppers: many will be keeping in local too

Just as the customer is always right in bricks and mortar retail, the same applies to ecommerce. Onsite search should meet not only visitors’ expectations but also impress them. A critical interaction with customers, it can make or break a shopping experience and is often the cause of customer frustration rather than retailer opportunity. Andreas Brueckner, Senior Merchandising Consultant at ATTRAQT, discusses how retailers can consistently optimise onsite search so that it is rewarding for both buyer and seller.

It’s not often you get to have a conversation with your shoppers, but that’s precisely what onsite search is. The shopper is telling you what they want, and if you aren’t able to respond appropriately, then you are missing a propitious opportunity to convert an already primed buyer.
Numerous studies have shown that for nearly all online retailers, conversion rates for customer journeys involving onsite search are typically two to four times higher than those that do not include the search box. In other words, if search accounts for 20% of visits, which is a typical number in the fashion sector, approximately 40% of revenue can be attributed to search.

Sharpen up search

Customers won’t buy what they can’t find. It’s essential you make the search as easy as possible and also adjust your strategy to suit your target audience. For example, people looking for an electronics item will be more specific in their search than those on a fast fashion site, the latter lending itself more to browsing.

Optimising your strategy and configuration should be part of a regular review of ecommerce sites, whatever sector you are in. There is plenty of helpful advice out there, all valid, but which tends to overlook some of the critical issues we are asked about by retailers on a daily basis.

1. Make improvements where it’s most efficient

It is unrealistic to improve 100% of all search items, and not necessary either. Focus on optimising the most frequently searched products and leave the long tail for algorithms. It’s also a good idea to record commonly recurring ‘problem’ patterns so they can be fixed. Results might be poor, say, when a shopper searches for a brand that involves a colour or product type within the name, such as ‘Boss Orange’ or ‘Calvin Klein jeans’ – and where the brand sells more than just ‘Orange’ perfume or jeans. By regularly monitoring, you can change how the search engine finds, and orders match for these types of terms.


2. Avoid dead ends

If a user gets zero results for a search, don’t leave them dangling. Give them some feedback by responding with a related product, or if you don’t stock that particular item, be honest. It’s okay to say you don’t sell a product.

3. Understand why users don’t convert

There are many reasons why this can happen. It could be that the results don’t match user expectation – they just don’t want that product. If you suspect the search function is at fault, use manual options to improve the operation. This is straightforward, thanks to a useful report in Google Analytics – go to behavior> search > look at refinement rate.

This report will helpfully flag up which are the highest number of poor quality searches by showing you where shoppers have used onsite search and then needed to refine their search straight after. Configuring search to understand synonyms can help avoid this problem. Someone may be searching for ‘playsuit’ which can be written as either one or two words, or an overseas retailer may not have anglicised terms, using ‘thongs’ rather than ‘flip flops’ or ‘pants’ rather than ‘trousers.’ The search function needs to be able to recognise either term.

It’s a process of continual optimisatiom as your catalog changes. Furthermore, conversion rate by itself can be misleading, and you need to put it into context by comparing search conversion rate versus non-search conversion rate over a pre-decided period.

4. Work on the internal perception of search

Shout about how good search is to your colleagues. If you don’t quantify search quality, you will notice that the perception is negatively affected by the occasional edge case, when someone internally searches for an obscure product or one that doesn’t achieve much traffic and subsequently gets poor results. It’s important everyone in the business understands the aim is to focus on optimising search where it reaps the most benefit.

5. Don’t overlook user experience

The correct positioning of the search box is paramount if you want to create an impressive customer experience. No one will use it if they can’t see it, so make sure it’s visible at the top of the home page and also of a decent size. An extensive search box has a huge impact and can contribute to 75% greater use, according to our internal research based on a sample of 37 retailers in multiple sectors.

Adding a predictive keyword suggestions tool in the search box will help guide the user too, and prevent poor search experience. Our research shows that so-called ‘fuzzy searches’ – ones who don’t use predefined keywords – can be reduced by 25%. Then make sure browsing search results is easy: that rankings are a right balance between relevance, popularity and commercial considerations, and filtering options are intuitive.

6. Mobile is different

Over half of all online retail transactions are now taking place via mobile devices, according to IMRG figures. Shopping on mobiles means retailers have a less real estate to play with to create the ultimate onsite journey in miniature form.

The ranking of products surfaced on mobiles via search needs to be carefully chosen as people will just scroll through items rather than use filters or go to a product detail page and back again. They are also less likely to engage with recommendations – mainly because they are so far down the screen no one sees them – so facets and filter UX need to be even better than on the desktop version of the site. Interestingly, we’ve also noticed an increasing trend for shoppers to add items to their wish list on mobile for review, creating their own filtering system.

7. Prepare for the future

How people interact with online shops is slowly changing. Voice and image search will certainly become more commonplace, although they are still in their infancy. For now, image search has only just started to be used, but this will inevitably change. Take ASOS as an example. It has launched a visual search, but currently only on its app.

Voice is great on mobile and at home with tools such as Amazon Echo. The latest Gartner Report predicts that within the next year almost a third of our interactions with technology will be through ‘conversations’ with smart machines, such as messenger apps, chatbots and voice-controlled assistants. However, in the retail industry, currently, less than 1% of all searches are natural language requests, such as ‘I want a dress for Saturday’s work party’. The use of natural language requests in onsite search will become mainstream when talking to machines becomes more of everyday activity.

Which technology will dominate will depend heavily on the vertical and associated shopper needs. For online grocery shopping, searching products via voice commands is growing in popularity, as Ocado has proven with their recently launched Alexa app. Conversely, in the fashion sector pictures are critical, which limits the usefulness of pure voice interfaces. Instead, there is ample opportunity for image search and other visual approaches.

While automation will be even more important in onsite search, whether its via voice search, image search or by better semantic analysis of requests, it is important to remember that search is much more than good algorithms. Only if the technology is working in harmony with human insight, excellent interface design and tight integration into retailer’s processes can we hope to create a truly enticing search and shopping experience.

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