NRF: Google-izing e-Tail Searches

Jan 13, 2011

What lies at the soul of an e-commerce website? “It’s
the search engine,” according to Nitin Mangtani — not a surprising answer
coming from a group product director for Google. But in his educational session
at this week’s NRF convention in NYC, Mr. Mangtani did put forth a convincing
argument to retailers that nothing satisfies a customer better than a well-executed
product search.

After all, Mr. Mangtani, asked, “What’s the first thing
a shopper does when she hits your website? What do you do when you go
to a retail website?” In
most cases, he contends, consumers look for a search box. That prompted the
first of the session’s “search insights”: position your search box
prominently. Too many retailers, perhaps due to a sort of inferiority complex,
hide underperforming search boxes in the upper right corner of website pages,
he contends.

Once found and put to work, retail website search engines should
aspire to deliver speed, efficiency and interactive customer experiences, according
to Mr. Mangtani. How fast is fast? Just a few years ago, searching for say
a digital camera and getting a list of results in three seconds would have
been perfectly acceptable. Today, it better be a “sub-second” result,
according to Mr. Mangtani — perhaps 300 to 500 milliseconds.

Google’s offering
to retailers in this field is a plug-in version of its search technology that
has taken the world by storm. It’s called Google Commerce Search 2.0, in its
latest iteration, and is a SaaS (software-as-a-service) product, therefore
offering retailers the advantages that come with cloud-based computing: plug-in
ease; zero-overhead; and quick start up.

But where the leverage of Google’s
massive data and hardware resources gives it an upper hand is in producing “query
suggestions” — those auto-generated
lists that scroll down when you begin typing your search keywords. According
to Mr. Mangtani, this type of “machine learning,” to be done properly,
needs to draw from a huge consumer-spawned database. With Google, that’s on
the magnitude of billions of queries — a rich repository from which the shopper
can be reminded or pointed towards what they are seeking.  Plus, speed is doubly
important in this situation since responses must occur on each keystroke. (Now
we’re talking about 10 milliseconds.) Again, Google has the machine power to
zip data back and forth to its SaaS “cloud” with this type of efficiency.

What’s more important to e-tail sales, visual merchandising
or fast, efficient search? What are the worst mistakes e-tailers make with
regard to their search tactics and the way they display results?

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8 Comments on "NRF: Google-izing e-Tail Searches"

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Max Goldberg
11 years 4 months ago

Why does one aspect need to be more important than the other? It is important to have good, fast, accurate search. Once the consumer finds the page he/she wants, it’s important to let them have a good look at the merchandise. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. Great e-commerce sites have them both, backed by great customer service.

Fabien Tiburce
Fabien Tiburce
11 years 4 months ago

Asking which is more important, visual merchandising or search, may be like asking what’s more important in a flight: take off or landing…Do either one wrong and you’re in for some serious trouble.

E-tail customers browse as much as they search. Discovery is an important part of the shopping experience and often the search only gets you to a point from which you can or choose to browse.

As for the latency objective (sub-second), I could not agree more. I seem plagued by a serious case of “impatientia” every time I use a web browser and I don’t think I am alone. E-tailers take note: your slow site may be walking dead and hurting your other efforts.

Dave Wendland
11 years 4 months ago

The topics of searchability and shoppability for e-tailing are not mutually exclusive. My fear is that e-tailers will place too much emphasis on the informed search capabilities and forget that there needs to be an engaging and relevant user experience. In a perfect world the search engine capabilities of a Google-type application will augment the visual merchandising and consumer navigation that the site delivers during the shopping experience. There remains room for improvement here as the industry–and technology–continues to evolve.

Gene Detroyer
11 years 4 months ago

Search or merchandising? It depends, of course. What is the shopper doing? Buying or browsing? If you are looking for something specific, a book or movie by title, great visual merchandising is hardly relevant. Even in apparel, if you want to buy a pair of Levi’s 505 straight leg in black, you want to get to the order page as quickly as possible.

However if you want to browse (call it shop) the books or jeans, then visual merchandising becomes ultra important. (But, that great visual merchandising better not create a clunky website.)

However, what nobody mentioned is the checkout. Great search, great merchandising and awkward and difficult checkout process lead to “NO SALE.”

Bill Hanifin
11 years 4 months ago

Max Goldberg hit it on the head. There should be a mix of merchandising and search capability to render a pleasing and efficient e-commerce experience.

Bill Emerson
Bill Emerson
11 years 4 months ago

I’m with Gene. It depends, as always, on the customer. Some want to get ideas, some know exactly what they want and want to get to it quickly. One capability should not be increased at the expense of the other.

Jonathan Marek
11 years 4 months ago

Of course both are extremely important. But to actually answer the question, I do think search is slightly more important. As someone said above, it comes down to browse versus buy. All else equal, I’d rather enable a “buy” visit.

Search is even more important as you include things like in-store product availability, product recommendations, product reviews, etc. in the results, enabling the site to drive in-store sales and social media interactions more effectively.

John Federman
John Federman
11 years 4 months ago

It’s a fascinating challenge: how does a retailer deliver a best-of-breed search solution while recognizing the incredible merchandising opportunities that have emerged because consumers start their product searches on retail sites more than ever? The answer – follow the precedents long established by in-store. That is, integrate merchandising into the search – much like end-caps and eye-level shelf space positioning has done in-store forever.

Like in-store, there needs to be a conscious effort to ensure the consumer experience doesn’t suffer – and that’s easily accomplished by treating merchandising as just another component to the algorithm. Google is right – search is driving the online retail experience like never before. But balancing that reality with retail best practices – like merchandising – creates a new and meaningful win for consumers, manufacturers and retailers alike.


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