Commerce search is like an employee in a retail store—shoppers use your search bar to find departments they want to browse and items they wish to purchase in the same way they might ask an employee for help in person—but a search engine is not as good at having two-way conversations or asking questions to uncover what customers need. When online shoppers get irrelevant results or have to work hard to find what they’re looking for, they become frustrated and leave your site. Delivering a great search experience is the culmination of hundreds of small decisions that, combined successfully, can lead to big business outcomes.
Benefits of a Better Search Experience
Effective search strategies should make customers feel they are receiving a personalized shopping experience. According to a recent Constellation Research study, strong contextual relevance and reduced friction lead to an increase in key growth metrics, including
- 23% more money spent per visitor
- 27% more money spent per customer search
- 35% more page views
- 41% more customer time spent on the site
- 49% higher add-to-cart rate
- 54% higher rate of conversion
Through many years of working with hundreds of commerce teams across industries, we’ve identified five principles that all search teams should apply to build differentiated experiences that lead to higher customer satisfaction and revenue growth.
1 - Offer a Variety of Search Types
When you think about commerce search, text-based queries might be the first thing that comes to mind. But in our increasingly mobile world, search needs to meet customers where they are to reduce friction along the journey to purchase.
For example, a woman admires her friend's shoes during a lunch meeting. Although the friend knows she bought the shoes from your store, she can't recall the name. With your mobile-first search, the admirer can snap a photo of the shoes and use your app to conduct an image search. She identifies an exact match and purchases a pair for herself. This seamless search experience, once considered too good to be true, is now crucial to meeting customer expectations.
In addition to image search, your search experience should take advantage of other mobile web browsing and app capabilities such as barcode scan and voice search. For example, a large grocery retailer offers barcode search capabilities in its mobile app that customers can use to check the price of an item, find a store location where the item is in stock, or add the item to their online cart. Providing a variety of search types enables the customer to choose the most convenient method and improves accessibility.
Assess the effectiveness of each search type by monitoring search feature adoption to measure the percentage of searches that utilize each search type and how behavior differs between device types. Understanding if and how your customers use these features will provide guidance on which features to continue supporting and which to rethink or discontinue.
2 - Enable Better Search Queries
A straightforward way to help improve your search experience is to guide users as they enter a query. A more precise or expressive query will help your search engine better understand the customer’s intent, resulting in more accurate search results. Common query enhancement tactics include:
- Autocomplete: When users start typing, they see a list of potential matches to choose from, making it faster and easier to complete queries—especially on mobile devices.
- Autocorrect: Creates error-free queries without requiring additional user input. For example, an auto parts site might autocorrect “breaks” to “brakes.”
- Category or facet suggestions: Offer category suggestions for ambiguous search terms. For example, on a home improvement site, the keyword “washer” might suggest results in “Appliances > Washers & Dryers” and “Hardware > Fasteners.”
- Unit of measure conversion: Enables people to search with the units most familiar to them while producing accurate results, even if the results use different units of measure.
For example, a buyer for a heavy equipment dealer logs into your site to order a few necessary parts for a customer. As they type the product name into the search bar, item suggestions and their part categories auto-populate a list. With only the first few letters of the product name in the search bar, the buyer spots the right part in the suggestions list and clicks through to the product page, saving precious time. This kind of guidance can appear subtle to the user but is essential to the overall search and purchase process. It reduces the likelihood of zero results and helps better align results with the user’s search intent.
It’s essential to monitor suggestion quality to measure the accuracy and relevance of your query enhancers. When offering guidance, such as autocomplete or autocorrect, your analytics should indicate the position of the selected suggestion in the list. You should also log any enhanced queries that returned zero results. Gaining a complete picture of your suggestion quality will help you better understand which suggestions need further refining to match customer needs.
3 - Provide Flexible and Adaptable Search Results
Depending upon the nature of their initial search query and the size of your catalog, customers will sometimes see too many or too few results. To reduce friction and improve the likelihood that users find exactly what they’re looking for, provide the option to refine and expand searches without starting over. You can achieve flexible search results with:
- Faceted navigation: Relevant product attributes display as search refinements, guiding the user to the right results and ensuring they can’t produce zero results.
- Search filters: Enable users to eliminate search results using a set of fixed criteria that they can toggle on or off, ideally with dynamic filtering that prevents applying filter combinations that produce zero results.
- Catalog breadcrumbs: Orient users within your product catalog, and if a search produces too few results, enable them to expand it by selecting the parent category.
Flexible and adaptable search results reduce friction by allowing customers to narrow and broaden their search results without needing multiple search iterations. For example, a couple moving into their first apartment realizes they need basic tools to assemble their furniture. So they log onto a home improvement website and search for “screwdriver,” which returns hundreds of results. The couple notices search filter options next to the results, where they can narrow down their search by screwdriver type. They click “Phillips-Head Screwdrivers” and see products that are an exact match. They also see options to refine their search by selecting certain brands and features, which sets a clear course from search to purchase.
Tracking search depth helps you understand how many results pages customers view after their initial searches and how your refinement options affect that figure. Desired metrics will vary by business type: A clothing retailer may want customers to view multiple results pages per search to increase the likelihood of purchasing multiple items in a single transaction, while a heavy machinery parts dealer might prefer a lower search depth because they’re delivering precisely what the shopper needs.
4 - Reduce Search Iteration
While giving users tools to refine their searches is helpful, you also want to ensure that every result set is optimized to reduce the need for search iteration and drive conversion. The likelihood of a cart start or order decreases when users must perform multiple searches to find the desired item.
The worst case scenario driving search iteration is zero results returned. This causes shopper frustration, which increases exit rates. It also provides you with valuable data that can be used to optimize your search function based on customer queries. For example, are customers using jargon or model numbers that aren’t indexed within your search function? Reviewing search analytics will aid in appropriate updates to increase conversions.
Leveraging product domain knowledge to power up your search capabilities can eliminate significant friction:
- Synonyms: Search results automatically include results for terms equivalent to the user’s query. For example, a search for “crock pot” at a kitchen goods site should also return “slow cooker” and “instapot” results.
- Category: Some queries match both specific products and product categories. In these instances, consider a differentiated result format for category matches that gives users a shortcut directly to the relevant catalog section without requiring search refinement.
- Measurement/dimension matches: Use measurement and dimension matching to eliminate search friction for searches driven by product specifications. For example, an electronics site should understand that a search for a “75-inch TV” is looking for a TV with that screen size, not an external dimension.
- Color palette matching: If color is essential for your product type, consider exposing color-based search refinements and color family results. For example, fashion site users could search for “blue shirt” and see a color family page with special merchandising elements and matching product results.
Last month, your Product Portfolio Manager (PMM) noticed recurring keyword searches for “cherry lipstick,” which produced no results. The PMM added “cherry” as a color term in the “reds” family, along with a color chip, optimizing the search feature to improve product category search relevance. Now, a shopper can enter “cherry lipstick” in the search bar and see all red lipstick options close to the color chip in her results, increasing the likelihood of a transaction. Previously, that search would have yielded few results.
Understanding your customers will inform how you tailor your domain-specific search options. Monitor your search analytics to spot searches with low search depth and high search exit rates. Tracking time after search—the time customers spend on your site after submitting a search—will help you evaluate how easily customers find the desired product during a search and how well your domain-specific search capabilities match your customers’ search intentions.
5 - Deliver Smarter Search Results
Good search relevance is more than matching your user’s search intent. Your relevance rules should consider additional factors that improve the likelihood of conversion or increase your bottom line. Some tactics to consider:
- Segment-specific relevance rules: Rank and filter results by customer segment so that results align with user expectations. For example, if your site serves both B2C and B2B segments, you might boost or filter commercial products in B2B users’ results.
- Segment-specific pricing: If you offer segment-specific pricing, factor it into search rank. For example, more deeply discounted products could appear higher in results. The search results page should also reflect the appropriate price.
- Inventory-aware results: Boost results based on inventory status, so that available products rank higher in results.
- Margin boost: Boost higher margin products and categories in results to promote more profitable ordering.
- AI Automation: Using AI and machine learning (ML) to configure search aspects will return more relevant results. For example, ML can detect synonyms by analyzing past queries (i.e., pressure cooker) and subsequently selected products (i.e., Instapot) to ensure appropriate results are returned.
For example, your team is preparing for a ramp-up in online orders during the holiday season. Historical data reveals an uptick in orders for bracelets this time of year. To meet end-of-year revenue goals, you’d like to sell bracelets with higher profit margins, which you can achieve by setting up a margin boost. Now, when a shopper visits your site and searches for “bracelet,” items with higher profit margins are towards the top of the results, increasing their likelihood of purchase.
Measuring gross margin will reveal if margin-boosted search results impact conversions and your bottom line. Since the definition of high-quality search results varies based on the business model, measuring conversion rate will determine whether your tactics drive more conversions. B2B businesses may find that inventory-aware results yield high conversion rates, while B2C businesses may benefit from implementing segment-specific pricing or margin boosts to drive conversion.
Applying Commerce Search Principles Leads to Improved Business Outcomes
Implementing principles of more effective search will lead your business to improved outcomes in three key areas.
- Increased Revenue: When customers receive targeted and relevant results, they are more likely to complete a purchase. Merchandising integration also provides more compelling upsell and cross-promotion opportunities, which you can integrate into the search experience.
- Increased Engagement: Fewer null searches and increased relevance will keep customers on your site and engaging with your brand because the search results meet their needs.
- Increased Customer Satisfaction: When customers receive search results that load quickly, include only in-stock items, and include items aligned with their search queries, there’s less friction on the path from search to purchase.
Effective application of these search principles is pivotal for businesses aiming to enhance customer experience and drive retention and loyalty. Businesses can unlock huge benefits by offering diverse search types, helping users refine their search queries, providing flexible search results, reducing search iteration, and delivering smarter results. Considered together and combined effectively, these principles will increase revenue and drive higher engagement and customer satisfaction. As you navigate the evolving commerce landscape, the HCL Commerce Cloud team is ready to help you implement a robust search experience for sustained success.