Walmart steps up e-commerce with in-house search engine

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Wal-Mart backs Web tracking
Wal-Mart backs Web tracking

Walmart is stepping up its integration of its online and in-store properties by creating a proprietary search engine called Polaris. The search engine was developed by the retail giant's in-house technology shop @WalmartLabs, which the company created following the April 2011 acquisition of Kosmix.

Polaris, announced on August 30 but launched three months ago on Walmart.com and one month ago on Walmart's mobile platform, underscores the importance of search, particularly for e-commerce.

“The search engine is the crown jewel of any e-commerce platform,” says Sri Subramaniam, VP of @WalmartLabs. “And, typically, if you are a business you want to own [the] crown jewel and you want to actually get under the hood.” He adds that Walmart is “very, very, very serious about e-commerce” and views e-commerce and in-store shopping as part of an integrated experience.

Polaris currently powers Walmart.com USA's desktop and mobile search and browse capabilities, Subramaniam says, adding that Walmart hopes to expand Polaris to its other properties in 27 different countries. “The big goal, “Subramaniam says, “is [Walmart.com] becomes a global platform that helps customers find things both in all of the e-commerce properties across the world but also…inside the store.”

The search engine combines transactional data, customer engagement habits, and social signals, including Facebook “likes” and customer reviews, to better target consumer searches. Ultimately, Polaris is designed to interpret user intent rather than return results based on the literal query, and it considers trends when filtering searches, which means results will vary daily.

“There's a holistic view of how important an item is to any customer, and then we combine that with…what the user is looking for in a given search and put it together,” Subramaniam says.

Walmart chose to develop its own search engine because third-party search engines had limited capabilities. Subramaniam notes that major e-tailers like eBay and Amazon have always had proprietary search solutions. 

The issue with third-party search engines, Subramaniam says is that there are only “so many things you can do to tune it to make it really work for your own customers.” For instance, because Walmart has a more limited inventory than Amazon and eBay, its search engine must direct users only to available products.

“Basically…they're tuning their search engine to what their inventory looks like,” says David Schubmehl, research manager in IDC's Search and Discovery department. “Walmart does not offer every product under the sun like Amazon seems to.”

For instance, a Polaris search for “garden furniture,” which Walmart doesn't offer, might bring back patio furniture, which Schubmehl says is “semantically similar.”

Though not exactly an early-adapter when it comes to developing in-house search capabilities, @WalmartLabs' Subramaniam doesn't think that this hinders Walmart, as the retailer can leverage more mature technologies. “What Walmart has the advantage [of] is what we call…generation skipping, which is taking advantage of all the latest and greatest in open source, latest and greatest from the acquisition of Kosmix,” Subramaniam explains. “[Walmart can] finally take advantage of the new phenomenon such as social and mobile, which provide a lot more signals now than were available to [Amazon and eBay].”

@WalmartLabs has experience developing and launching search solutions. Previously, Kosmix created Junglee, a search engine later acquired by Amazon.com. Subramaniam previously served as a member of eBay's search team before joining Kosmix. Polaris's development required a 15-person team and took approximately 10 months, Subramaniam says.

Prior to Polaris, search on Walmart.com was powered by Endeca, which was acquired by Oracle.

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