Findability on an E-commerce Site

Findability on any e-commerce site is a beast all on its own. What if visitors’ searches return no results? Will they continue to search or did you lose your chance at a sale?

While product findability is a key factor of success in e-commerce, it is predominantly enabled by simple search alone. And while simple search usually doesn’t fulfill complex needs among users, website developers and owners still regard advanced search as just another boring to-do item during development. Owners won’t go so far as to leave it out, because every e-commerce website has some kind of advanced search functionality, but they probably do not believe it brings in much revenue.

Research shows:

  • 50% of online buyers go straight to the search function
  • 34% of visitors leave the site if they can’t find an (available) product
  • Buyers are more likely than Browsers to use search (91%)

What can’t be found, can’t be bought:

  • Search is often mission critical in e-commerce
  • Users don’t know how to spell
  • Users often don’t even know how to describe it

First of all, Findability can accelerate the sales process. And faster sales can increase conversions, because you will not be losing customers who give up trying to find products. Furthermore, fast, precise and successful searches increase your customers’ trust.

On both e-commerce and shopping comparison sites, users can find products in two different ways: searching and browsing. Searching obviously means using the site search whilst browsing involves drilling down through the categories provided by the website. The most common location for a site search on e-commerce sites is at the top of the page, and generally on the right side. Many e-commerce sites have a site search, user login, and shopping cart info all located in the same general area. Keeping the site search in a location that is pretty common will help it to be easier to find for some of your visitors who are accustomed to this trend.

Faceted search should be the de facto standard for an e-commerce website. When a user performs a simple search first, but then on the results page, he or she can narrow the search through a drill-down link (for a single choice) or a check box selection (for multiple non-overlapping choices). The structure of the search results page must also be crystal clear. The results must be ranked in a logical order (i.e. for the user, not for you) by relevance. Users should be able to scan and comprehend the results easily. Queries should be easy to refine and resubmit, and the search results page should show the query itself.

Spell-check is also crucial. Many products have names that are hard to remember or type correctly. Users might think to correct their misspelling when they find poor results, but they will be annoyed at having to do that… or worse, they might think that the website either doesn’t work properly or does not have their product.

Query completion can decrease the problems caused by mistyping or not knowing the proper terminology. Queries usually start with words; so unambiguous character inputting is crucial.

Search analytics, contextual advertisement and behavioral targeting is more than just finding a page or a product. When people search they tell you something about their interests, time, location and what is in demand right now, they say something about search quality by the way they navigate and click in result pages and finally what they do after they found what they were looking for.

A good e-commerce solution uses search technology to:

  • Dynamically tailor a site to suit the visitors’ interests
  • Help the user to find and explore
  • Relate information and promote up- and cross sales
  • Improve visitor satisfaction
  • Increase stickiness
  • Increase sales of related products or accessories
  • Inspire visitors to explore new products/areas
  • Provide-increased understanding of visitor needs/preferences

–> Convert visitors into returning customers!

Why Web Search is Like a Store Clerk

When someone is using the search function on your web site, your web search, it tells you two things. First of all they have a specific need, expressed by their search query. Second, and more importantly he or she wants you to fulfill that need. If users didn’t care where the service was delivered from, they would have gone straight to Google. Hence, the use of your search function signals trust in your capabilities. This means that even if the majority of your website visitors doesn’t use the search function, you know that the ones who do have a commitment to you. Imagine you are working in a store as a clerk; the customer coming up to you and asking you something is probably more interested in doing business with you than the ones just browsing the goods.

This trust however, can easily be turned to frustration and bad will if the web search result is poor and users don’t find what they are looking for. Continuing our analogy with the store, this is much like the experience of looking for a product, wandering around for a few minutes, finally deciding to ask a clerk and getting the answer “If it’s not on the shelf we don’t have it”. I certainly would leave the store and the same applies for a web site. If users fail when browsing and searching, then they will probably leave your site. The consequence is that you might antagonize loyal customers or loose an easy sale. So how do you recognize a bad search function? A good way to start is to look at common search queries and try searching for them yourself. Then start asking a few basic questions such as:

  • Does the sorting of the search results make sense?
  • Is it possible to decide which result is interesting based on the information in the result presentation?
  • Is there any possibility to continue navigating the results if the top hits are not what you are looking for?

Answering these questions yourself will tell you a lot about how your web search is performing. The first step to a good user experience is to know where your challenges are, then you can start making changes to improve the issues you have found in order to make your customers happier. After all, who wants to be the snarky store clerk?

The Difference Between Search and Findability

Enterprise Search and Findability What is Different?

Is “Findability” only a buzzword to describe the same thing as before when talking about search solutions, or does it bring something new to the discussion? I’d like to think the latter and this week I read a blog post describing the difference between search and findability in a very good way. I couldn’t have written it better myself.

For the lazy one, I’ve picked a quote that is the key element in the post:

Findability: introducing the robot waiter

Imagine you’re in a futuristic restaurant and when the robot waiter approaches, you ask for ‘ham and cheese omelette’. In response he just shrugs his robotic shoulders and says ‘not found – please try again.’ You then have to keep guessing until you find a match for something you’d like to order.

Now imagine a second futuristic restaurant where the robot waiter says ‘Mr Grimes, how lovely to see you, the last time you visited you had A and B and gave them a 5 star rating. People who ordered x, also ordered y and found that the wines a, b and c went really well with it.’At first restaurant the menu was searchable (though regrettably the ‘ham and cheese omelette’ query didn’t match anything), at the second restaurant the menu was findable.

To me, this analogy is spot-on. I dare to say that making content searchable is more of a technical issue while reaching great findability requires understanding of the business. Why is that?

Well, making a content repository searchable you “only” need to hook up a connector, index the repository and display a search box to the users. To succeed with this, it doesn’t matter if the content is movie reviews, user manuals, recipes, a product catalog or whatever. What you need to know is the format of the repository (is it a SQL database, file system, ECM, etc.).

But if you want your users to find what they want in your repositories, business knowledge is a requirement. It’s true that you help your users find information by implementing technical stuff like query completion, facets, did-you-mean, synonym dictionaries, etc. But if they are to be of any help you need to present facets that are useful, populate the synonym dictionary with terms used in your organisation,etc. For example, a good synonym file targeted towards nurses and doctors would be very different compared to one targeted at employees at an insurance company.

Bridging the Gap Between People and (Enterprise Search) Technology

Tony Russell-Rose recently wrote about the changing face of search, a post that summed up the discussion about the future of enterprise search that took part at the recent search solutions conference. This is indeed an interesting topic. My colleague Ludvig also touched on this topic in his recent post where he expressed his disappointment in the lack of visionary presentations at this year’s KMWorld conference.

At our last monthly staff meeting we had a visit from Dick Stenmark, associate professor of Informatics at the Department of Applied IT at Gothenburg University. He spoke about his view on the intranets of the future. One of the things he talked about was the big gap in between the user’s vague representation of her information need (e.g. the search query) and the representation of the documents indexed by the intranet enterprise search engine. If a user has a hard time defining what it is she is looking for it will of course be very hard for the search engine to interpret the query and deliver relevant results. What is needed, according to Dick Stenmark, is a way to bridge the gap between technology (the search engine) and people (the users of the search engine).

As I see it there are two ways you can bridge this gap:

  1. Help users become better searchers
  2. Customize search solutions to fit the needs of different user groups

Helping users become better searchers

I have mentioned this topic in one of my earlier posts. Users are not good at describing which information they are seeking, so it is important that we make sure the search solutions help them do so. Already existing functionalities, such as query completion and related searches, can help users create and use better queries.

Query completion often includes common search terms, but what if we did combine them with the search terms we would have wanted them to search for? This requires that you learn something about your users and their information needs. If you do take the time to learn about this it is possible to create suggestions that will help the user not only spell correctly, but also to create a more specific query. Some search solutions (such as also uses a sort of query disambiguation, where the user’s search returns not only results, but a list of matching categories (where the user is asked to choose which category of products her search term belongs). This helps the search engine return not only the correct set of results, but also display the most relevant set of facets for that product category. Likewise, Google displays a list of related searches at the bottom of the search results list.

These are some examples of functionalities that can help users become better searchers. If you want to learn some more have a look at Dan Russells presentation linked from my previous post.

Customize search solutions to fit the needs of different user groups

One of the things Dick Stenmark talked about in his presentation for us at Findwise was how different users’ behavior is when it comes to searching for information. Users both have different information needs and also different ways of searching for information. However, when it comes to designing the experience of finding information most companies still try to achieve a one size fits all solution. A public website can maybe get by supporting 90% of its visitors but an intranet that only supports part of the employees is a failure. Still very few companies work with personalizing the search applications for their different user groups. (Some don’t even seem to care that they have different user groups and therefore treat all their users as one and the same.) The search engine needs to know and care more about its’ users in order to deliver better results and a better search experience as a whole. For search to be really useful personalization in some form is a must, and I think and hope we will see more of this in the future.

Google Instant – Can a Search Engine Predict What We Want?

On September 8th Google released a new feature for their search engine: Google instant.
If you haven’t seen it yet, there is an introduction on Youtube that is worth spending 1:41 minutes on.

Simply put, Google instant is a new way of displaying results and helping users find information faster. As you type, results will be presented in the background. In most cases it is enough to write two or three characters and the results you expect are already right in front of you.

Google instant

The Swedish site Prisjakt has been using this for years, helping the users to get a better precision in their searches.

At Google you have previously been guided by “query suggestion” i.e. you got suggestions of what others have searched for before – a function also used by other search engines such as Bing (called Type Ahead). Google instant is taking it one step further.

When looking at what the blog community has to say about the new feature it seems to split the users in two groups; you either hate it or love it.

So, what are the consequences? From an end-user perspective we will most likely stop typing if something interesting appears that draws our attention. The result?
The search results shown at the very top will generate more traffic , it will be more personalized over time and we will most probably be better at phrasing our queries better.

From an advertising perspective, this will most likely affect the way people work with search engine optimization. Some experts, like Steve Rubel, claims Google instant will make SEO irrelevant, wheas others, like Matt Cutts think it will change people behavior in a positive way over time  and explains why.

What Google is doing is something that they constantly do: change the way we consume information. So what is the next step?

CNN summarizes what the Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google says:

“The next step of search is doing this automatically. When I walk down the street, I want my smartphone to be doing searches constantly: ‘Did you know … ?’ ‘Did you know … ?’ ‘Did you know … ?’ ‘Did you know … ?’ ”

Schmidt said at the IFA consumer electronics event in Berlin, Germany, this week.

“This notion of autonomous search — to tell me things I didn’t know but am probably interested in — is the next great stage, in my view, of search.”

Do you agree? Can we predict what the users want from search? Is this the sort of functionality that we want to use on the web and behind the firewall?

Findability and the Google Experience

In almost every findability project we work on, users ask us why finding information on their intranet is not as easy as finding information on Google. One of my team members told me he was once asked:

”If Google can search the whole internet in less than a second, how come you can’t search our internal information which is only a few million documents?”

I don’t remember his answer but I do remember what he said he would have wanted to answer:

”Google doesn’t have to handle rigorous security. We do. Google has got millions of servers all around the world. We have got one.”

The truth is, you get the search experience you deserve. Google delivers an excellent user experience to millions of users because they have thousands of employees working hard to achieve this. So do the other players in the search market. All the search engines are continuously working on improving the user experience for the users. It is possible to achieve good things without a huge budget. But I can guarantee you that just installing any of the search platforms on the market and then doing nothing will not result in a good experience for your users. So the question is; what is your company doing to achieve good findability, a good search experience?

Jeff Carr from Earley & Associates recently published a 2 part article about this desire to duplicate the Google experience, and why it won’t succeed. I recommend that you read it. Hopefully it will not only help you meet the questions and expectations from your users; it will also help you in how you can improve the search experience for them.

Enterprise Search and why we can’t just get Google.

Quick Website Diagnostics with Search Analytics

I have recently been giving courses directed to web editors on how to successfully apply search technology on a public web site. One of the things we stress is how to use search analytics as a source of user feedback. Search analytics is like performing a medical checkup. Just as physicians inspect patients in search of maladious symptoms, we want to be able to inspect a website in search of problems hampering user experience. When such symptoms are discovered a reasonable resolution is prescribed.

Search analytics is a vast field but as usual a few tips and tricks will take you a long way. I will describe three basic analysis steps to get you started. Search usage on public websites can be collected and inspected using an array of analytics toolkits, for example Google Analytics.

How many users are using search?

For starters, have a look at how many of your users are actually using search. Obviously having a large portion of users doing so means that search is becoming very important to your business. A simple conclusion stemming from such evidence is that search simply has to work satisfactorily, otherwise a large portion of your users are getting disappointed.

Having many searchers also raises some questions. Are users using search because they want to or because they are forced to, because of tricky site navigation for example? If you feel that the latter seems reasonable you may find that as you improve site navigation your number of searchers will decrease while overall traffic hopefully increases.

Just as with high numbers, low numbers can be ambiguous. Low scores especially coupled with a good amount of overall site traffic may mean that users don’t need search in order to find what they are looking for. On the other hand it may mean that users haven’t found the search box yet, or that the search tool is simply too complicated for the average user.

Aside from the business, knowing how popular search is can be beneficial to you personally. It’s a great feeling to know that you are responsible for one of the most used subsystems of your site. Rub it in the face of your colleague!

From where are searches being initiated?

One of the first recommendations you will get when implementing a search engine for your web site is to include the search box on each and every page, preferably in a standardized easy-to-find place like the top right corner. The point of having the search box available wherever your users happen to be is to enable them to search, typically after they have failed to find what they are looking for through browsing.

Now that we know that search is being conducted everywhere, we should be keeping an eye out for pages that frequently emit searches. Knowing what those pages are will let us improve the user experience by altering or completing the information there.

Which are the most common queries?

The most frequently issued queries to a search system make up a significant amount of the total number of served queries. These are known as head queries. By improving the quality of search for head queries you can offer a better search experience to a large amount of users.

A simple but effective way of working with search tuning is this. For each of the 10, 20 or 50 most frequent queries to the system:

  1. Imagine what the user was looking for when typing that query
  2. Perform that query yourself
  3. Examine the 5-10 top results in the result list:
    • Do you think that the user was content with those results
    • If yes, pat your back 🙂
    • If not, tweak using synonyms or best bets.

Go through this at least once a month. If the information on your site is static you might not need to change a lot of things every time, but if your content is changing or the behavior of the users you may need to adjust a few things.