Better site search takes deep thinking, improved personalization, helpful analytics, reallocating spending, innovation and empathy, says RealDecoy.

Search sign

.takeaway { background-color: #eeeeee; float: left; margin: 5px 15px 5px 0; padding: 15px; width: 50%; } In life, there are so many things that we all know are important and yet we blithely pretend they’re no big deal, because taking care of them is inconvenient or complicated or difficult. Flossing. Contributing to a 401K. Cleaning gutters. And site search. Yes, site search. OK, maybe not important in everyone’s life, but critically important in the life of anyone who’s involved in online commerce. Site search is the way you welcome customers into the world of your products and services. It’s how you hear your customers’ voices. It’s often what determines whether a customer sticks around or even whether a customer ever comes back for a visit. I got to thinking about all this during a webinar that Richard Isaac, CEO of business technology services firm RealDecoy, teamed up with BloomReach to present this week. Called “7 Insider Tips about Site Search Guaranteed to Boost Conversion,” the presentation made a strong case for paying close attention to the quality of your site search. Seven insider tips about site search

  • Turn your unsung hero into a superhero.

  • Don’t spend more. Reallocate

  • Get relevant and get personalized

  • Structure your search experience from your customers point of view.

  • Innovate, innovate, innovate.

  • Let your business needs guide your level of control.

  • (Gold) mine search your analytics for conversion insights.

  • The entire webinar is available for download .

There is a lot at stake — a lot of money. Isaac told of a RealDecoy client that was struggling with site search. The company, which he didn’t name, focused on its site search woes, invested about $25,000 in optimizing the site and realized a $13 million return within six months. It sounds great, though I don’t want to think about the opportunities that client had been missing out on if there was that much room for improvement. And as impressive as that single story is, Isaac warned that it was something of an outlier. Fixing site search is not trivial. Some companies are saddled with legacy systems and must decide whether to replace the old model with something new or commit more resources in an attempt to improve the performance of what they have. Executives need to decide whether they want a site search system that is highly automated, handling the bulk of optimization work and leaving the highest-value problems for the humans to solve. Or do they want a system with very little automation, keeping maximum control, but also requiring intense manual labor to continually optimize a site. Whatever those conversations look like, Isaac says, there is one important lesson to keep in mind. [caption id="attachment_17559" align="alignleft" width="258"] Richard Isaac Richard Isaac[/caption] “Usually website visitors are on your site for a specific reason. Generally speaking, if your search is not good, they stop using, not just your search box, but they leave your site and don’t come back to your site, period.” So what to do? Isaac had answers. In fact, he had seven answers, as the webinar title implied. Issac’s list and thinking:

  1. Turn your unsung hero into a superhero:

    Yes, site search is a superhero. Isaac pointed out that retailers and others are spending more and more on attracting customers and yet the pace at which those customers actually buy has barely budged in 10 years. “When we look where companies are spending money, most goes to visitor acquisition,” Isaac said. “I’m challenging our thinking on the ratio of dollars we spend on acquiring website visitors as opposed to the ratio of dollars we spend in converting those customers.” Isaac did the quick math: Take a million new annual visitors. Thirty percent of them will use the search box the first time they visit a site. Eighty percent of those will bounce because of a bad search experience. That means you’re losing 240,000 visitors because of bad search. Now, say you spend the average $1.65 to attract each visitor, if you’re a business-to-business site, or $3.33 if you’re a business-to-consumer site. That means you’re wasting from $396,000 to $799,200 in advertising spending. And that doesn’t even consider all the lost sales, which Issac puts at $2 million, using more math. (Say, 240,000 visitors with an average order value of $158 for business-to-consumer and a 5 percent conversion rate = $1.9 million.) So, yeah, give site search the superhero treatment.

  2. Don’t spend more. Reallocate:

    Now you know the math. Isaac said the math doesn’t say spend more. It says spend more on site search and less on acquiring customers (especially if you’re attracting customers who are not converting). “There are significant advertising dollars being wasted, in addition to the lost revenue potential due to poor site search experience,” he says. “It’s measurable. It’s real.”

  3. Get relevant and get personalized:

    Not all site search systems are created equal. Some solutions come with no automation to handle relevancy and personalization. The work needs to be done manually and it needs to be done at least every sixth months. Every three months is better. “The truth is, if you’re using a platform that does not offer a lot of automation, search is hard work,” Isaac said. “Relevant and accurate search results require hard work. There are no shortcuts.” Or enterprises can choose a site search solution that harnesses algorithms to handle the heavy lifting of personalization and relevance at scale, leaving the high-priority and more creative work for humans. “On the other end, there is a high level of automation,” he said. “Search relevancy is handled automatically with machine learning. The technology usually still offers control for manual search relevancy when you need it. When you introduce a high level of automation for personalization, that’s where we find the magic happens.”

  4. Structure your search experience for your customers point of view:

    Too often, Isaac said, retailers build a taxonomy and deploy a search system that meets the retailer’s need, but doesn't consider the way customers think, talk and search. “Unfortunately, your website visitors will use search terms that are different from the product descriptions in your catalog. This is one of the reasons that you can’t just rely on search technologies that have great keyword search.” Isaac told of a client who sold “20,000 varieties of chicken,” but nowhere on the site was their a product described as “chicken breast." And guess what? That’s what shoppers search for, not “CHKN BRST,” which was the way the retailer described it. And when people type “Sawzall” into a search box, they might want to see Sawzalls, but they want to see reciprocating saws from other brands, too. But that’s not necessarily the way another brand is described on a site. “You need to seriously ask yourself: Does your taxonomy make sense to your shoppers? I know that’s a scary question to many retailers.” The good news? If your site search is smart and able to constantly learn from shoppers' behavior, it will help shoppers find what they’re looking for, no matter how it’s described on the site. “The right search technology can help you fake it until you make it,” Isaac said. “Choosing the right technology is key in helping you hide those problems from your shopper.” And isn’t it better to hide your problems from shoppers than to hide your products from them?

  5. Innovate, innovate, innovate:

    Isaac says the retailers that he sees doing well are innovating rapidly. Not necessarily massively, but rapidly. “Innovation in retail isn’t about that one big idea that transforms,” he said. “It’s about making small, incremental improvements that can be measured over time and add up to something great.” Those improvements can yield big dividends — improvements like adding faceted navigation, deploying type-ahead features for those who begin typing in the search box, adopting natural language processing and semantic understanding. “You’ve already started failing if you don’t have these three of many features,” Isaac said. If you do have them, Isaac said, adequate and relevant facets can increase on-site conversion by 26 percent. Type-ahead features lead to consumers who are six times more likely to convert. And the feature produces average order values that are 3 percent higher and order volumes that are 5 percent higher. Being innovative is about being fearless and learning from failure, Isaac said. “Those who aren’t doing this,” he said of retailers who are not innovating, “are quickly losing hard-earned market share to companies like Amazon and companies like Walmart.”

  6. Let your business needs guide your level of control:

    When you consider ways to improve your site search, figure out just how much automation your organization requires. Some might want complete control over site search performance, Isaac said. “The higher level of automation, obviously, the more time you’ll save,” he said. “A high level of automation simply means the automation can handle most of your heavy lifting, but merchandisers can still customize it.”

  7. (Gold) mine search your analytics for conversion insights:

    Analytics are a key consideration with site search, Isaac said, because “every time a user searches your site, they’re telling you in their own words exactly what they’re looking for.” Are you taking advantage of those insights? Isaac mentioned tools like Google Analytics and BloomReach Compass, which, of course, made us happy. “I’ve been in the industry a long time, and BloomReach Compass really surprised me. Most important, it helps you understand the customer journey for any given query."

And so, improving site search might still seem inconvenient and complicated and hard, even after you’ve heard from Isaac. But hopefully, you’re seven steps closer to understanding just what you need to do to get the job done. Photo of search sign by Pleuntje published under Creative Commons license. Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.