Q&A: Shaun Ryan, CEO and cofounder, SLI Systems

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Shaun Ryan, CEO and cofounder of search vendor SLI Systems, talks about the attention e-commerce sites need to pay to their site search efforts. Ryan — who holds a doctorate in artificial intelligence from the University of Canterbury —founded GlobalBrain in 1998, which was sold to Snap/NBCi.com in 2000. He later bought it back and renamed the organization as SLI Systems.

Direct Marketing News: I read an article recently that called for e-commerce sites to focus less on standard search engine marketing and more on site search. Do you agree? Why is site search important?

Shaun Ryan (SLI Systems): Site search is definitely a vital thing to be focusing on because when someone types a search term into your site search box, they're saying this is what I'm looking for, and so it's a fantastic opportunity to meet that need if you can provide relevant results. For most retailers, the people who search will convert at two or three times the rate of people who don't search, and that's why they need to be focusing on it. If their search doesn't work, then they're just missing out on a huge opportunity.

DMN: What are the big trends you see for this year in site search?

Ryan: To answer that I want to talk about some of the things we've seen in the last year in site search. There's an overall push to make websites faster in part because Google has said that speed is one of the indicators they look at in ranking sites, but also there's an improvement in usability when you makes sites faster. So we've been working on making site search faster in part by implementing search using Ajax. So when you do a search, it only loads the part of a page that needs to be loaded. Search now has refinements down the left-hand side, so when you click on those it doesn't reload the whole page, it just uses Ajax to pull the information that you need to display. So we've seen a whole lot of our customers using Ajax on their site searches, and we expect that to continue in the coming year.

DMN: What's a feature of site search that more retailers should be implementing?

Ryan: A standard feature of site search for a few years now has been auto-complete where as you type you see search suggestions below the search box. The new thing that's started to roll out this year that's going to become commonplace is showing products or search results as you're typing. This was rolled out by Google last year, and we began rolling it out to our clients on their search. For example, if you go to Motorcycle Superstore and you start typing in a search term, you'll see that there are products shown below the search page as you're typing. So this again speeds up the whole experience and makes it easier for people to find, and we've seen some fantastic results. About 30% of people who search will engage with that particular feature, and they convert at about twice the rate of people who don't engage with it, so it has a significant impact on the bottom line for retailers.

DMN: What are the challenges with instant site search?

Ryan: There are some technical challenges with getting the technology to work so that the results come up quickly after a keystroke. There are challenges in making sure you're returning relevant results.

DMN: Are you seeing a push toward mobile-optimized search?

Ryan: Most of our customers are starting to roll out mobile sites. That's definitely going to be an ongoing trend for the next year. It's something that they're being forced into, so I think there's going to be a lot of best practices starting to be worked out around mobile, around how they should be building their mobile sites and optimizing them. At the moment there's a significant amount of traffic from mobile devices, but it's still a fraction of what they get to the main sites. So there's a lot of learning going on.

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