Product Search vs. Product Discovery: What’s the Difference?

Kait Spong
Kait Spong

When navigating the world of ecommerce, it’s easy to get caught up in the jargon. Terms are often used interchangeably, and before you know it, distinct concepts start to blur into one another. Take “customer acquisition cost” and “customer lifetime value,” or “omnichannel” and “multichannel,” for example.

But this confusion seems particularly common with “product search” and “product discovery.” But despite sounding similar and operating within the same realm of the discovery process, each offers different perspectives on how customers find and engage with products online. And while it’s crucial to understand where they may share some common ground, it’s also just as important to understand where they differ.

The good news is, once you delve a little deeper, these two concepts aren’t as complex as they might initially seem. In fact, distinguishing between them can be quite straightforward. So, let’s demystify these terms, and explore the role both product search and product discovery play in shaping the online shopping experience.

What Is Product Search?

Product search is a fundamental feature of any interactive website. It’s the tool that allows users to sift through a site’s vast content and find exactly what they’re looking for, whether that’s a product on an ecommerce platform, an article on a news site, or a  piece of information on an online database. In essence, product search is the bridge between the user’s needs and the site’s content. It’s about providing the user with a seamless, intuitive way to explore the site’s offerings and quickly locate what they’re searching for (but that doesn’t mean it always works correctly!).

When it comes to ecommerce specifically, the core of product search lies in understanding and fulfilling the shopper’s intent. When a shopper types a query into the search bar, they intend to find a specific product or service. The role of product search is to comprehend this intent and provide results that accurately match it. It not only meets the immediate needs of the customer but also enhances their overall experience on the site.

How Product Search Works

The process of product search can be broken down into three key components:

  1. Semantic UnderstandingSemantic understanding is the first step in processing a search query. The search solution must understand the words used in the query and their intended meaning. This involves recognizing synonyms, interpreting natural language phrases, and correcting misspellings. The goal is to grasp the customer’s intent as accurately as possible by separating products from their attributes to offer up relevant results and product recommendations.
  2. Recall and Ranking Algorithms – Once the system understands the query, it moves on to find all the potential matches within the site’s content or product database (which is often referred to as “search recall”). Then, it ranks these results based on their relevance to the query and the person behind it. This step involves complex algorithms that consider a variety of factors, such as search and transaction history, customer preferences, and more.
  3. Personalized Ranking – To enhance the relevance of search results, certain solutions on the market incorporate personalized ranking into search results. This involves tailoring the recall set and ranking of search results to the individual customer based on past behavior, known preferences, or demographic information. By personalizing the search experience in this way, the system can deliver more targeted and relevant results, leading to higher satisfaction, revenue, and return on investment (ROI).

What Is Product Discovery?

Product discovery can be defined as the process of finding and exploring products in an online store without necessarily having a specific intent to purchase. Unlike product search, where users have a clear goal in mind, product discovery allows users to browse and stumble upon items they may not have known they wanted or needed. So, product discovery teams want to optimize for this customer, as well.

Just think of product discovery as an expanded version of product search — it’s another essential aspect of the ecommerce industry that adds to the personalized shopping experience. Product discovery goes beyond traditional search functionalities to include category navigation, product taxonomy, merchandising, and recommendations. It plays a crucial role in attracting and retaining customers, fostering a positive brand perception, and of course, driving revenue. At its core, product discovery recognizes that customers enjoy the process of browsing and discovering new products to solve their wants, desires, and pain points.

Frequently Purchased Together Widget Presented After Dining Room Set Query

How Product Discovery Works

While smarter search is undoubtedly a part of product discovery, other crucial components are involved. These include:

  1. Category Navigation – Product discovery helps customers navigate through different product categories, encouraging them to find relevant products or services within specific sections of an online store. This can involve optimizing the hierarchy of categories, implementing filters and sorting options, and providing intuitive navigation menus for better browsing and improved results for your company’s bottom line. Keep in mind that product discovery is also about having a well-structured and user-friendly interface, so your brand can effectively guide customers toward their desired products or services.
  2. Merchandising – Effective product discovery strategies involve product management, as well as creating a strategic placement of products and highlighting bestsellers, new arrivals, or seasonal items based on user research (aka merchandising). By showcasing these products prominently in front of the right customer at the right time, businesses can catch the attention of consumers and guide them towards potential purchases for increased revenue and ROI, making everyone on your product team happy. Aside from creating cohesive customer journeys, merchandising allows teams to optimize product descriptions, images, and other informational elements of an ecommerce website. This results in more accurate and up-to-date information being shown, a more enticing experience for customers, and a smoother and more efficient way to drive conversions.
  3. Recommendations – Product discovery solutions can generate personalized recommendations by analyzing customer behavior and preferences. These product recommendations can be personalized on multiple levels: by segment, by the individual, or by the anonymous user as they browse. Suggesting products or services that align with customers’ demographic information, personal preferences, and customer feedback will ensure that the products shown match up with who the customer is and what they want (or might not even know they want). Displayed through different widgets (like “Recently Viewed,” “Similar Products,” or “New Arrivals”), recommendations are peppered throughout various sections of an online store, including search results, category pages, or even in shopping carts.

5 Ways Product Discovery Impacts Your Business

You can unlock a multitude of benefits from an effective product discovery strategy. So, let’s delve into five key impacts that product discovery can have on your brand.

Better Profitability

First, let’s talk numbers. Product discovery has the potential to give your business a serious boost in profitability. By guiding customers toward relevant products, you not only increase conversion rates but also encourage them to spend more. It all starts with algorithms that identify which products are relevant based on user behavior for each query, rather than just the broad product type or category. This query-level semantic understanding constantly optimizes search results for what your customers are most likely to buy.

The right search tool will include AI (or prioritize it on its product roadmap) and machine learning (ML) and can understand what a customer is trying to find, no matter how they type into the search bar (e.g., misspellings, unexpected synonyms, or brands you don’t carry). After the recall algorithm does its magic, a dynamic ranking algorithm will rank the results in an order that boosts RPV and AOV. Keep in mind that improved product discovery and profitability will also help procurement workflows and the future product development process since you have the finger on the pulse of your customer.

Increased Productivity

Gone are the days of tedious manual processes. With a search and merchandising tool, you can work smarter and faster. As we mentioned prior, the best solutions utilize AI algorithms and ML capabilities to analyze vast amounts of data in real time, providing valuable insights and recommendations for optimizing search results and product collections. The combination of technology and human expertise empowers your team to curate captivating collections, optimize search results, and deliver personalized experiences that set you apart from the competition.

Not to mention, search and merchandising solutions allow your team to focus on strategic decision-making rather than getting caught up in repetitive manual tasks. With automation taking care of mundane processes — such as product categorization, tagging, and inventory updates — your team can allocate their time and resources toward more creative and impactful initiatives, like usability testing, customer education, and pricing and promotions.

Decrease in Total Cost of Owner for the IT Team

By implementing a robust product discovery solution, you can significantly reduce the total cost of ownership for your IT team. No more building and maintaining complex search and recommendation algorithms from scratch. The best search solutions come equipped with user-friendly interfaces that even business users can navigate with ease and make important changes without a support ticket.

Banner for Building the Best Semantic Search Blog

Product discovery solutions take these burdens (and more) off your IT team, allowing them to focus on their strategic initiatives. By leveraging prebuilt algorithms and intuitive, user-friendly interfaces, a search and merchandising vendor can help your team bypass years of building and refining your own search tool. With reduced development time and costs, you can allocate your IT team’s resources to higher-value projects that propel your business forward.

Improved Site Experience for Your Customers

Speed matters. That’s why integrating product discovery into your website is a game-changer for your business. By harnessing the power of intelligent algorithms, an ecommerce search solution makes the product discovery process faster and more accurate for your customers, helping the user feedback around your ecommerce website improve exponentially.

Then, your site can deliver lightning-fast search results and recommendations, ensuring that your customers find what they’re looking for in a matter of seconds. In other words, AI-powered algorithms analyze user behavior, preferences, and historical data to provide highly relevant and personalized product suggestions. This improves the overall user experience, boosts customer satisfaction, and drives more revenue. Of course, you can always take an active role in any of these testing assumptions generated by AI with an interactive dashboard that allows you to intervene as needed.

A Healthier Perception of Your Brand

Finally, we come to one of the most crucial impacts of product discovery: a healthier perception of your brand. When customers have a seamless and personalized shopping experience, they develop a stronger connection with your brand. They’ll see you as a trusted guide, providing them with exactly what they need, when they need it.

Satisfied customers can become brand advocates, engaging in positive, word-of-mouth marketing and attracting new shoppers to your business. With product discovery shaping a remarkable customer journey, it’ll set you apart from the competition, prove that you’re a trusted brand in product delivery, and secure both short- and long-term success.

Woman Using Credit Card to Shop Online

Bloomreach Can Help Your Brand Achieve Better Product Discovery

You don’t have to come up with your own product discovery process! With Bloomreach Discovery at the helm of your approach, you’ll have everything you need to be successful, whether you’re a Head of Ecommerce, Ecommerce Merchandiser, or Search or Product Manager.

We’ve spent over 13 years developing a massive data set, so our search engine already knows how to adapt to your customers’ behavior. This means you will see an immediate impact on the quality of your search relevance, recommendation widgets, and more because you don’t have to wait around for a pixel to learn your business.

Want to see Bloomreach Discovery in action using your own product data? We can show you how it would look firsthand with our Search Impact Validation — sign up today!


Kait Spong

Senior Content Marketing Manager at Bloomreach

Kait is a Content Marketing Manager at Bloomreach and is passionate about delving into the technology solutions that improve a business’ end goals. Once earning their BA and MA in English, the seasoned writer delved into the world of content marketing, branding, search engine optimization, and social media marketing and has helped numerous companies across all industries with their content and thought leadership strategies. Read more from Kait here.

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