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Searching for customer satisfaction and online revenue

Online search technologies have proliferated to become the second most widely used online application, second only to e-mail, and rapidly closing the gap. Research figures estimate that nearly 60 million Americans use search engines on a daily basis. That widespread adoption allowed search giant Google (google.com) to transcend household name recognition to achieve verb status as in, “I googled it today.” So, search technology is ubiquitous across the Internet, yet specific uses for search such as merchandising and behavior analysis reveal nuances of the technology that can benefit consumers and businesses in myriad ways.

Consumers shopping online or browsing Web sites for information are conditioned to look to the top of the page for a search bar. Web sites that provide their search tools in a standardized and easily accessible location are meeting the minimum requirements for e-commerce, yet those that maximize their search opportunity—as detailed in the Aberdeen Group’s recent benchmark report Web Site Search: Revenue in the Results—are realizing higher customer satisfaction and returns. Sixty-one percent of visitors using search have a conversion of 5 percent or more from browsers to sales. While conversion rates can vary widely among companies, all have search as a common denominator affecting the online user experience.

The Web Site Search benchmark report stems from a survey Aberdeen conducted in January and February of more than 200 users deploying search technologies on their Web sites. The respondents consisted of C-level executives, VP and directors of technology, and line-of-business managers in IT/Web site development.

External pressures

Although search is a ubiquitous technology, producing accurate and relevant results remains a top pressure for 76 percent of survey respondents, who seek to deliver search tools to enhance the customer experience. Following that is the financial pressure of growing revenue, which 54 percent of respondents say they face. For 35 percent of respondents, gaining a better understanding of customer behavior through search tools is the pressure cited. Although two of the top pressures listed are consumer-driven, Aberdeen finds that all aspects of Web site performance have an underlying theme of generating revenue.

Online merchants face additional difficulties including operational factors that stem from the technology management and back-office requirements necessary to deploy a robust, effective search offering. Companies defined operational pressures as effectively cross-selling and up-selling products (29 percent) and providing exposure to product catalog (34 percent).

Such pressures demonstrate an opportunity for search tools to improve product exposure within a site internally, as well as to enable product listings across comparison shopping sites, such as shopping.com and BizRate (bizrate.com). That can be accomplished to some degree by internal search engine optimization (SEO) techniques, which are used by 57 percent of all respondents to produce better results both internally and externally. Most search tools provide a non-technical interface for merchandisers to associate products to promote cross-sell and up-sell items. Those features are currently used by 31 percent of retailers and can be modified easily based on product availability or seasonality to generate additional revenue.

Strategy in action

The companies listing external pressures that affect the deployment of their Web site search applications have different strategies to combat the pressures. The dominant approach taken by 59 percent of survey respondents is continuous fine-tuning of search to ensure that customers receive relevant results (see Figure 1 on page 24, KMWorld, Volume 16 #5). Additionally, learning more about customers through analytics and personalizing the results for unique customers or customer segments ranked as a top strategy for 31 percent of all merchants surveyed.

As mentioned previously, organic SEO initiatives also play an important role in search engine strategy. The actions of fine-tuning search, producing relevant results and personalization all take place when the customer is already on the Web site. Alternatively, 53 percent of respondents describe their SEO tactics as a way to attract new visitors to the site. However, companies are
utilizing data generated internally to identify keywords and other factors that affect their external SEO strategy. By doing this, sites that optimize their Web presence to generate relevant results from their search tools are also elevating the chances of discovery on external search engines. According to 74 percent of leading companies, the strategies align and operate in a symbiotic fashion.


E-commerce search applications are innately suited to merchandising, due to their nature of seeking out products. Yet, 46 percent of respondents struggle with the proper method to manage that capability. A growing contingent of vendors provides “searchandising” (the convergence of search and merchandising) tools and techniques for inducing search results to benefit traditional retail merchandising.

To a great extent, the process begins with the way that search results are
organized and displayed to consumers after an initial search query. Historic challenges have been search tools that provide too many responses, forcing users to wade through lines of products and/or data to find relevant information, or not enough responses, leaving them wanting more.

To combat those challenges, 33 percent of companies use a faceted search taxonomy that segregates query matches by attributes. The attributes can include categories such as: price, brand, gender, color, style or any number of combinations depending on the products. The benefit is that consumers can refine their search based on information specific to their needs without sifting through a multitude of results. Currently, only 16 percent of industry laggards are using a faceted search structure, but that is likely to change because 47 percent of all respondents plan to implant that taxonomy in the next 12 to 24 months.

In addition to segmenting search results based on facets or product attributes, sites are applying the collective knowledge gained from multiple search inquiries and resulting click-throughs to merchandise based on those trends. While 38 percent of merchants are learning from collective behavior, predictive merchandising is currently used by only 17 percent of the respondent population.

Innovators watch, others listen

Innovative companies predominately use analytics to learn about customer behavior and collectively apply that knowledge, according to Aberdeen’s findings. That information is used to tune search results for merchandising to customers and customer segments on a predictive basis. That process can be achieved in real time, yet it is extremely difficult to do. Sophisticated search technologies can deliver real-time merchandising results based on information gained during a consumer’s current online session, but most often that is not the case. Most retailers are deploying operational changes to merchandising based on customer feedback. Leading firms indicate that listening is not necessarily the key to financial success. What works for top firms is to watch consumers’ online behavior and make changes based on their actions rather than words.

Customer-centric technologies

Many companies use search technologies that foster a customer-centric online experience, such as tolerance for misspelled words, thesaurus/synonyms and natural language processing. Those search tool capabilities provide better quality results and increase customer satisfaction because they are, by design, user friendly. Figure 2 shows that at least half of leading companies currently deploy the technologies, except in the case of natural language processing, and at least 80 percent will have the technologies within the next 12 to 24 months.

Recommendations for action

Web site search is a minimum competitive requirement for online commerce, as indicated by the 96 percent of e-commerce Web sites that currently have or will have a search tool in place in the next 24 months. Aberdeen research shows that the greatest impact of search tools is realized in customer satisfaction. Differentiation in search tools will surface among companies that focus on key customer service tools that make the online shopping experience more efficient and more gratifying. Here are some recommendations:

  • Make search tools customer friendly by using natural language processing, interpreting misspelled words and integrating a customized dictionary and thesaurus.
  • Learn about your customers through Web site search analytics. Valuable information about customer buying habits, preferences and patterns can surface from analyzing search analytics.
  • Treat search as an evolutionary process. Fine-tuning search is an ongoing process that requires a combination of process automation and human intervention. Benefits exist in merchandising, elevating customer satisfaction and streamlining processes.

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