by Mathias Duda
With this Christmas period no doubt set to post record-breaking online shopping figures once more, ecommerce is booming and shows no signs of slowing at any time soon.
However, with so many more shops and brands coming online, e-tailers need to look at how they not only get people onto their site, but also how they ensure they convert them into buyers – particularly at such an important time of the year for the industry.
Search and navigation can have a major impact here, and while the core issues are the same all year round – helping customers to find what they want as quickly and easily as possible – there are discrete areas to focus upon around Christmas.
Retailers could find themselves catering to a very different type of consumer over this period, one who doesn’t necessarily know what they are looking for when they come to the shop and is seeking ideas and inspiration. On top of this, many of these potential customers will be people who may not necessarily shop online throughout the rest of the year. From that perspective it can be challenging for online retailers to engage with these people.
Today’s on-site search technology needs to be able to handle a range of different problems to help users find the products they want. The last thing you want is to be generating “no results” pages, especially with many people under time pressure or last-minute gift shopping. The first hurdle to get over is spelling. Try searching using a phonetic spelling, or using K instead of C, or characters that are close together on the keyboard and see if they produce a search result. While many retailers will have a manual system in place where they have to update some form of dictionary to ensure the relevant results are delivered, this can be very labour intensive. However, search utilities are now coming online that use a type of “fuzzy logic” to produce these same results automatically.
Research by eResult has shown that where the search box is placed on a web page has a direct impact on how users negotiate it. The ideal positioning for a search box is high up on the page, so the user doesn’t need to scroll down. Also, current best practice agrees that it is most effective when placed on the right hand side of the page – the left side is normally reserved for navigation and categories. The search box should also be big enough so that the user has enough space to write long search requests or combined search requests, such as “black leather jacket”.
If customers need things quickly, then search response time can be a key factor in converting visitors to customers. Generally a good search function will generate results in less than 500ms. For those requiring more graphically heavy details, optimising this is about striking a balance between the site’s search technology and the need to cut back on any imagery. Another critical element of search performance is how often product information is updated within the search database. By producing an index of everything on the retailer’s site, search times are reduced as the search is performed within the index. Ideally this index needs to be able to be updated in real time, so whenever a new product is added to the list.
Do a search on Google or on Amazon and you will notice that as you type, a drop down menu appears suggesting options. This is fast becoming must-have functionality for product searching. However, to be most effective for retailers this needs to be error tolerant as well, so that even if you misspell the product name you can get the drop down menu suggesting the most popular searches. Beyond that, how search information is presented can also have a powerful effect on sales. Depending on the type and size of product being sold, the option to view in a list or grid format, with or without pictures and having the ability to vary the numbers of results shown on a page are all essential.
With so many options now available in retailers – from colour to size to price – this needs to be reflected in on-site search functions. Equally, these filters must be dynamic and change depending on the availability of products. There is no point in having categories with nothing in them. They should also allow you to select multiple attributes, for example “brown” and “black” shoes. Another function that is becoming increasingly popular is a price slider, which enables users to quickly and easily refine their searches.
Any search has to deliver relevant results. Sometimes users have to wade through dozens of products before they find the one they actually want purely because of the amount of information generated and the lack of order. The criteria for presenting search results – such as by popularity, by age of product or by frequency of purchase – can not only help deliver relevant results but also take the consumer in a certain direction. The search function should also be able to learn from consumer searching behaviour and reflect this in real time if products are becoming more popular. The Christmas period especially benefits from this, when the most fashionable or most “liked” product offers can be automatically shown at the top of the result list
This is potentially the most powerful tool for retailers trying to convert customers, at this time of year. Search offers plenty of opportunity to up sell: for example, through providing recommendations. The “if you like that, then take a look at this” or “this is what other people who bought this product also purchased” approaches can be a powerful tool to tap into for shoppers looking for further inspiration, as can offering consumers accessories to go with the products they are purchasing. On top of this, much more creative use can be made of searches generating “no results found” pages. This space can be used for promotions, for best sellers, tag clouds, listing most popular search queries or even for suggesting perfect gift offers. Put simply, don’t waste a good opportunity to give someone ideas or alternatives.
Even without the big budgets of the retail giants like Amazon and Tesco, following these simple rules can help brands and retailers optimise their sites to ensure their search and navigation is driving users to the correct results. Delivering everyone that they want for Christmas.
Mathias Duda is head of UK Operations for FACT-Finder