Commentary: Desperately Seeking Search Technology

By Robert D. Hof

After e-mail, people spend the most time online searching for stuff. Whether they're seeking information, entertainment, people, or products to buy, their first click after landing at a Web site is usually the search button. An easily searchable online catalog is what started Amazon.com Inc. on the road to stardom. EBay Inc. would still be an amusing online garage sale if its front-and-center search engine could not zero in on that one rare Disney movie storyboard. But all too many Web sites have ignored those lessons, relegating their search buttons to tiny boxes on the bottom of the page and not keeping up with the latest search technology.

That's a huge mistake--and many e-commerce companies are paying the price. Even as they struggle to attract and keep customers, sites that ignore the importance of search are losing sales without ever realizing it. Market researcher Jupiter Media Metrix Inc. found that 80% of online users will abandon a site if the search function doesn't work well. Says Martha M. Frey, an analyst at market researcher Patricia Seybold Group: "You could make a case that the main reason e-commerce is unprofitable is that the power of search has been overlooked."

BID UP. At the same time, a good search capability can help turn that situation around. Another market watcher, Forrester Research Inc., notes that more than half of online buyers use search to find products--and the better the search tools, the more they buy. That's what eBay, where buyers and sellers make an average of 30 million searches a day, has found whenever it has improved its search feature. "Every time we added a capability on search, bidding went way up," says Maynard Webb, president of eBay's technology unit.

The thing is, any e-commerce site can get the same results if it makes the effort. Search technology is continuing to improve at a fairly rapid clip, offering more accurate results. Google Inc., for instance, has become the Web surfers' search engine of choice. That's thanks to software that tallies the number of links to pages containing the chosen keywords, returning remarkably useful results.

And this is not the end of search innovation. EBay chose Fast Search & Transfer, based in Norway, for its new search technology because it delivers ultrafast updates of the latest auction postings and bids. Others, such as EasyAsk Inc.'s search engine used on Landsend.com, don't use just keywords to find stuff. Instead, they search an underlying database to get at what people might want. When shoppers search for "green shirts," they get a broader list that allows them to choose among "forest" or "heather."

Much of the improvement can come from simpler means: playing up the search function and designing the site to take advantage of it. One thing that should be dead obvious but clearly isn't: The search box shouldn't require a search engine to find it. There's no search button to be found anywhere on the Body Shop's site, only fuzzy categories such as "Make Over" and "Wellbeing." Smarter sites such as Ritz Interactive's camera site, for instance, place a prominent search button not only on the home page but also on every single page, so shoppers can always go directly where they want.

SERENDIPITY. It's equally important to avoid designing search capabilities that take things too literally. All too often, misspellings bring up zero results. Web sites can program their search engines to respond to common misspellings. And search shouldn't always be too surgical. Amazon.com offers a sense of serendipity. When a search for John Grisham's latest book, A Painted House, lands on that page, shoppers also see a list of other products that people who purchased the book have bought, in case they might interest the shopper.

Most challenging, e-commerce sites must open up their private product databases to public search engines. That way, shoppers can find their products without having to know the Web site address. But the company's techies must be more open than they're used to being. "There is a lot of concern about what they consider proprietary data," says Google Chief Executive Eric E. Schmidt.

Not all of these improvements are easy to achieve. They often require rebuilding the site and rewriting entire databases to keep search in mind. That cost is tough to justify when it's so difficult to peg increased customer purchases on a site to search improvements. But unless e-commerce companies wise up and make the extra effort, even more of their employees will need to search for something else: new jobs.

Senior Writer Hof covers e-commerce.

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