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Searching for results

This article appears in the issue May 2013, [Volume 22, Issue 5]
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A strong search capability on e-commerce sites seems like an obvious requirement, yet surprisingly often it is overlooked, to the detriment of the merchandiser. Potential customers who cannot find what they want in their first search attempt may assume the item is not available and abandon the search entirely. Some studies indicate that average conversion rates are as low as 1 to 4 percent. "When users get irrelevant results, they lose faith quickly," says Jarrod Gingras, principal at the Real Story Group, a research firm that advises enterprises on content technology. "It is important to choose the right search technology for the content, and to recognize the need for ongoing tuning."

Go2marine.com offers a diverse group of 160,000 marine products and parts online, made by more than 800 different manufacturers for both commercial and recreational boaters.

The parent company, Mariner Supply, staffs its call center with experienced boaters and engine specialists to provide valuable expertise to its customers.

With such a large set of products, the success of the Go2marine site depends on an effective search capability. Mariner Supply had developed a  search engine in house and used it for many years, but decided to turn to the eCommerce Edition from EasyAsk after discovering it at a conference. "We were not really in the market to replace our search engine," says Keith Fetterman, CTO of Mariner Supply, "but we realized EasyAsk had a lot more capabilities than the search engine we were using."

Asking questions naturally

The Go2marine website had been operating for more than a decade. At the time it was established, marine supply sites were generally an extension of catalog retailers or brick-and-mortar stores. "Our founder was a boating enthusiast and worked in the commercial marine industry," Fetterman explains.

EasyAsk's products are based on natural language query capability, which allows visitors to the site to ask questions in the same terms they would use when interacting with a clerk in a store. For example, users can ask for a product "under $10," and the site will respond with appropriate results.

One of the qualities of EasyAsk that appealed to Marine Supply was that it matched the way the company thinks about its product line. "Rather than returning results for a series of individual products," Fetterman says, "it groups them into product families." For example, for a particular brand of diesel stove, about eight variations are possible, with assorted options for size and features. "Our customers can select the product family and then choose the details that match their needs," he explains (download Go2Marine search graphic that accompanies article).

If the search finds products in multiple categories, it groups them in the left margin of the screen so that the customer can select the desired category of products. "EasyAsk also filters by attributes such as manufacturer, size, weight or other factor depending on the product," Fetterman says.

EasyAsk's rich administrative tools were another attractive component. "There are many ways to tweak the search engine in order to improve results," Fetterman explains. "We wanted to give priority to products for which we have thumbnail images available, for example, and EasyAsk was able to do this after we modified our database to indicate that the product had an image available."

The proof of EasyAsk's effectiveness was evident to Mariner Supply in the sales volume. "Normally, the fall is our slow season," Fetterman says, "but the year we rolled it out, we saw an uptick, despite the economic downturn."

Prioritizing by attribute

Through the use of EasyAsk Studio, merchandisers can manage search and navigation as well as create business rules and promotions. The same natural language technology that supports search by customers is also used in the development environment, allowing the merchandiser to write a rule that says, for example, "Every time we show brown shoes, also show brown belts." Relevancy weightings for different fields are easily set up in a table by selecting options from "very low" to "highest."

EasyAsk eCommerce can be tuned to prioritize results according to any attribute. "The merchandiser might want to put high-margin products near the top of search results," says Marc Schnabolk, VP of sales at EasyAsk, "or automatically indicate the product as ‘new' if it was added in the last two days." If a product has more than a certain number of sales in a given time period, it can be automatically categorized as a "top seller." In each of those cases, the search will bring back those items.

If a search does not produce any results, rather than showing "no results," EasyAsk can be set up to relax the search criteria according to any attribute. For example, it can relax out the color first, or the manufacturer. "We think it's important to have something on the page as an alternative to the initial search," Schna-bolk says. "This is a core concept for the product."

EasyAsk is available in both on-premise and SaaS licensing models. "SaaS has made it very affordable for smaller companies to have the same search power as large retailers," Schnabolk says. "EasyAsk is equally well suited for sites with a thousand items for sale and those with millions of items."

Searching for answers

Natural language search provides the ability to interpret the meaning of users' inquiries and therefore gain a more accurate response, rather than simply locating information containing a given set of key words. That feature is useful for technical support staff who must search through large volumes of information to solve problems quickly.

One major office supply company with nearly 100,000 employees in about 30 countries wanted to increase the efficiency of its technical support team, and decided to consolidate its intellectual capital and support documentation in one location.

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