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GUEST COMMENT What’s next for retail search strategies?

Sorry, but simply having a really good ecommerce website with clear product information and quality images won’t get you very far in search these days. In fact, your search strategy needs to be constantly evolving. Because Google itself is constantly changing as it tries to improve its own ability to deliver the most relevant information to answer searchers’ questions as quickly as possible.

With that in mind, here are four important questions retailers should be asking to help refine and improve their search strategies for increased traffic and conversions.

1. How do we make our content work harder?

Just showcasing your products on your site is unlikely to do enough on its own to attract significant search traffic, especially as many retailers use the same generic product descriptions that are supplied by product brands or manufacturers (and duplicated copy such as this tends to have a negative impact on search performance).

As well as devoting time to creating unique product text, you need to use your content to build authority and expertise in your niche. This could involve integrating user-generated content and creating your own “content hub” with a blog or even publishing an online magazine attached to your ecommerce site. You could make it a goal to create content that tries to answer shoppers’ typical questions. A tools and hardware retailer might provide advice articles on home DIY tasks, for example; while a mobile phone store might publish blogs that compare competing phone models.

It can be useful to identify and create the types of content that customers might search for at different stages of the sales funnel. Does your site answer the typical questions asked by people at the top of the funnel who may be performing broad searches on Google, as well as providing more specific content for those lower down the funnel who are closer to making a purchase?

Overall you want to add value so that Google prefers to send searchers to your site rather than to your competitors.

2. Is our user experience good enough?

Analyses of recent Google updates suggest that the ability to deliver a superior user experience is a common denominator of websites that rank higher on Google – and this is an important factor for ecommerce sites as well. Search engines such as Google are able to assess the quality of the experience delivered by websites by tracking user signals such as time-on-site, number of pages per visit and bounce rates.

A big part of improving user experience in ecommerce hinges upon giving consumers an easy and pleasurable online shopping experience. Key elements in this include ensuring your pages load quickly (especially on mobile where many shopping journeys start) and incorporating well-planned internal menus and links that help shoppers find the products they want easily (as well as to quickly find alternatives and complimentary items). High-ranking ecommerce sites also tend to have an online store checkout section that is visible above the fold (without scrolling) i.e. Google rewards sites that make it quick and easy for visitors to find what they are looking for.

3. How will we embrace visual search?

Looking ahead, 62% of Gen Z and Millennial consumers want visual search capabilities more than any other new technology. Humans are visual animals and the ability to search for products visually is very powerful.

About two in five Google searches already results in images being shown to searchers. So a good start is to make sure you have a web inventory of relevant, quality images that are optimised to show up in Google image results. In fact, according to Google, 50% of online shoppers say images of the products inspired their purchases. And increasingly, they’re turning directly to Google’s image results when performing searches (this might also explain why Google is starting to introduce shoppable ads in Google Image results ).

Images are also a key part of the success of Google Shopping which displays retailers’ product images in the product listing ads (PLAs) which appear in search results. It goes without saying that retailers should be present here.

Next, you need to define your strategy for driving image-based ecommerce searches, which is a trend that’s beginning to emerge. Some websites and apps – such as Snapchat and Amazon – are already starting to let shoppers take pictures of products and launch an online search for the same (or similar) items. Google Lens, Google’s own image recognition tool, has the potential to deliver a similar offering for ecommerce using the inventory of retailers’ product images it can already access for Google Shopping.

Alternatively, you may decide that it’s better for your company to have a strategy based on creating your own image-based search capability. Argos, for example, has recently launched a ‘visual search app’ designed to allow customers to search for and purchase products from Argos using their phone camera.

4. What’s our strategy on voice?

Voice search and voice shopping are set to be everywhere very soon. Purchases made using smart speakers are predicted to jump from $2 billion to $40 billion by 2022.

One way for retailers to start breaking into this right now is to create content that targets Direct Answers (also known as Featured Snippets). Google displays these when it senses that someone is looking for a specific answer to a question or some instructions (such as “how to make honey” or ‘‘what is a classic car”). Direct Answers appear at the top of the search results (in around 10% of searches) so they have highly sought after. But they also increase the chance of appearing in voice search results on smart assistants; Google Home, for example, only reads out one answer to a question – and this is usually the result that features as a Direct Answer in search results.

The text in Direct Answers tends to come from websites with high authority that follow a clear, well-ordered content structure, with coding and tags that help Google’s crawlers understand what it’s about. A good start is to identify and try to answer the typical questions and “how to’s” that customers ask within your specific ecommerce niche.

Obviously, the voice will really come into its own when people begin actively making purchases via voice technologies as well-performing searches. This is already starting to happen with Amazon now allowing people to make voice searches and purchases from its marketplace using Alexa-enabled devices.

If you’re not selling on Amazon however, you need to decide your strategy; Walmart in the US has recently announced that it’s introducing voice-controlled shopping via Google Assistant for example.

Retailers need to be tracking developments in voice-based online shopping and start making plans if they want to maximise the early adopter advantage.
Search has long been important for online retail. But the secret to winning in this channel is to always have an eye how you can embrace and adapt to the way it keeps evolving.

Author: Björn Beth, director digital strategies group EMEA, Searchmetrics

Image credit: Fotolia 

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