Beyond the Search Box

Let’s face it: Today’s e-commerce is just commerce. We don’t need to differentiate between the two because digital influences every element of commerce today. It supports, influences, and drives the brick-and-mortar purchase, rather than kills it, as some may believe. From the first Pinterest pin of your favorite furniture piece, to the casual smartphone browse on your commute to work, to the purchase made via your tablet while lying on your couch—the digital aspects of commerce enhance our confidence in the purchase decision as much as they make it more convenient.

If we want to keep the “e” in e-commerce, we should start believing that it stands for “experience” more than anything else. In 2014, the movers and shakers in e-commerce won’t be thinking about just the transaction – or just the satisfaction of their customers. They’ll be investing in the commerce experience as a whole.

One of the most crucial, yet often overlooked elements of the commerce experience is search. If you don’t want to lose a customer, transaction, or upsell, then think about the importance of your e-commerce search box as a major customer interaction point. For customers arriving at your online store or opening up your tablet app, chances are the first thing they’ll do is go to the search box. If you fail to provide them the experience they expect, you can expect them to turn to Amazon or another competitor.

The retailers and brands that are switched-on to the importance of search for commerce see it not as a search box, but as windows into their store—windows through which they can view customer behavior. It’s not only the way to get a customer to what we consider the “right” product, but also a merchandising opportunity. In addition, it’s a way to understand what customers need and desire. Search technology can drive almost all elements of e-commerce personalization.­

First, consider getting the customer to the “right” product. Typically, humans make mistakes (spelling, terminology, language) when searching and we search differently depending on the type of item or category we’re looking for. A search for “smart work shoes” is different from a search for a Nikon d7000 SLR—one has a much higher level of intent to purchase (the camera) than the other. Therefore, determining what the “right” product is and getting the customer to that product relies on a combination of the skill of the e-commerce merchant and the ability for search technology to offer the results, regardless of a misspelling or unusual search term. The fundamental rule, though, is to never let the customer arrive at a dead-end—the “zero results” page. Always show them a product that ensures they don’t leave the store and go elsewhere.

However, it’s not only search that gets the customer to the right product. The digital equivalent of a brick-and-mortar store’s floor plan is the e-commerce store’s faceted navigation—and this goes hand-in-hand with search. Some shoppers like to be guided to the category and item that they desire by filtering through the store based on product attributes; think size, color, and style in the fashion world. The key for delivering a great shopping experience is to ensure that the filtering is dynamic, intuitive, and natural for the customers so they can easily find their way around and know where they are.

So, how does the search box become a merchandising opportunity and an influence beyond just a conversion to a transaction? The point at which the customer types in what he or she desires is the moment of truth for the e-commerce merchandiser to display products and upsell before the customer hits enter. Supported by sophisticated technology, e-commerce merchants are able to transform the search box into a conversion-ready merchandising opportunity by providing product suggestions as the customer enters specific terms.

Not only can the search box influence merchandising, it can drive service and product strategies. For example, the ability to track customers’ searches and where they land would provide valuable data to fashion retailers trying to understand why customers are searching for a certain trend, and yet are not arriving at a product that results in an “add to shopping cart” or purchase. Perhaps if they knew this information, fashion buyers could be informed that they’re missing out on a trend and that there’s a gap in the offering. Similarly, how valuable would it be to an electronics retailer to know that customers are searching for how to fix a certain defect in one of its products, but can’t find the right information? The search box and search technology can help inform the business beyond just merchandising and marketing to influence decisions that impact the entire customer experience.

Let’s consider the search box as something more than just a box—it’s a strategic tool that needs careful consideration and investment to deliver results in e-commerce. It’s a way to communicate with customers and give them better experiences that differentiate retailers and serves as one of the biggest drivers of conversion in the new wave of omnichannel commerce.

In his role as product marketer for SDL, Tom Smith is a trendwatcher, a technology evangelist, and an interpreter of SDL’s customer needs. Follow him on Twitter @Thomas_Smithy or connect via Google+.

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