Intelligent Search as an Alternative To Traditional Site Navigation

The debate over navigation versus search as the primary mechanism to find information on company Web sites is just one facet of a larger challenge to align fulfillment of customer needs with corporate marketing objectives. The Web has the potential to be a bi-directional communication medium that empowers corporate marketers to practice one-to-one marketing through their sites.

Few companies have realized this potential, and the reasons are many. Primary among them is a company-centric bias toward the purpose and design of company Web sites. Many sites are designed inside out to promote a company’s products or services and are structured around content assets the company wants the visitor to see. A customer-centric approach would be based on an outside in analysis of how information can be presented to satisfy the needs of each unique visitor.

Results of the inside-out approach to Web site marketing have been disappointing. Customers complain about complex navigation structures and an inability to find the information they need, primary causes for premature site abandonment (most visitors abandon navigation-based searches if they cannot locate what they need within five clicks) and low conversion rates.

No one size fits all. Traditional navigation structures are partly to blame for the ineffectiveness of many companies’ Web site marketing strategies. As companies grow and develop or acquire more products and services, their sites grow in breadth and depth of information, making them increasingly unwieldy and difficult to navigate. Web sites are nearly impossible to design to a one-size-fits-all model. The site must appeal to all constituent audiences (customers, prospects, employees, partners, job seekers, investors), each of which has different needs and reasons for visiting the site.

Each audience segment may include wide demographic differences. Visitor expectations and behavior vary by education level, age, gender and other variables. Even when considering just audience and demographics, the potential number of user scenarios becomes too great to manage individually. Therefore, companies make compromises and design their sites to appeal to the broadest cross-section of likely visitors, which results in a sub-optimal user experience for every constituent group.

Potential customers demand and expect simplicity, ease of use and specificity. Navigation by itself cannot satisfy customer expectations, hence the consistently high abandonment rates and low satisfaction levels.

Recently, customers and companies have turned to search to help match customers with the information they need. Though following navigation paths is still the main method to maneuver through sites, more users are trying site search to find information. The results have not improved, largely because many companies view “search” as a necessary but commoditized tool for their sites. Many visitors are unsuccessful with keyword search tools on company sites. They do not know which keywords to use and are confused by the hundreds or thousands of results a typical keyword search will produce.

Customers control the online buying process. Companies invariably find that the preferred strategy for aligning customer needs with corporate marketing objectives is to engage customers in dialogue to ascertain their needs and to respond with a personalized experience tuned to those unique needs. After all, consumers control the online buying process.

An outside-in, customer-centric approach to Web site interactions recognizes that each visitor to your site will have his own personal buying process with multiple distinct stages. In a typical buying process, consumers first identify and articulate their need, then research options for satisfying that need. Options are evaluated against criteria deemed most important by the potential buyer to reach a purchase decision and eventually a transaction (purchase).

Understanding visitor needs helps determine an individual’s propensity to buy (location in her personal buying process) and lets the marketer respond with appropriate information to accelerate the customer through that process. Uncover the intent behind the customer’s visit to the site, and the marketer can fulfill current needs and also accelerate the cycle by anticipating and fulfilling subsequent needs.

Marketers can practice one-to-one marketing effectively by engaging visitors in a dialogue through an intelligent search mechanism on their sites – intelligent in the sense that the search application will understand the visitor’s search request for its underlying need and intent, and deliver a complete response that includes exact answers to the present need and related information (including relevant upsell and cross-sell promotions) to address anticipated subsequent steps in the visitor’s buying process.

Applying intelligent search to market automobiles. Consider an example. The Honda passenger vehicles Web site is designed much as you might expect, around the specific vehicular models. But Honda also offers an enticing option for visitors to explicitly articulate their needs. Every page after the home page features a four-line “Find Answers” search box that encourages visitors to engage in a dialogue.

If a visitor enters, “Which vehicles get the best mpg” or “What models get the best mileage,” the system returns a dynamically generated table listing just Honda’s most fuel-efficient models, an exact answer to the visitor’s search request. The complete response also includes related information likely to be of interest – in this instance, a link to a fuel savings calculator and articles on Honda’s environmental record.

Taken a step further, it’s conceivable that intelligent search applications like this one also could be configured to deliver specific promotional offers based on the context of the search request – for example, vehicle-specific financing offers for the two models presented in the complete response. The T-Mobile and BellSouth sites feature contextual promotions in their results.

From a marketing perspective, the example above represents alignment between understanding and fulfilling visitor information needs with corporate marketing objectives. The complete response delivered by the intelligent search application does not exist in static form on the company’s site. Trying to locate the information in the response via site navigation would have frustrated the customer and possibly led the customer to give up or go to a competitor’s site. Honda was able to understand and dynamically respond to a visitor’s unique needs and do so in a manner that encouraged the visitor to continue her personal buying process (e.g., use the fuel savings calculator to compare commute costs or address environmental concerns).

Site navigation is static, company-centric and incapable of creating a personal connection with customers. Natural language intelligent search applications, by contrast, are dynamic, responsive to customer needs and suited for engaging customers in a dialogue. Buyers control the Web. Forcing potential customers down a navigation path prescribed by the seller inevitably leads to high abandonment rates and dissatisfaction.

Engaging customers in a search-based dialogue, understanding their needs and responding with information specific to each visitor’s needs and buying propensity will build trust, accelerate buying processes and deliver higher conversion rates and transactional volume. A site that engages a customer and can determine his needs is the key to unlocking enduring brand loyalty.

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