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Your on-site search tool should act like a human, not like an advanced search engine, writes Tal Rubenczyk.

Shoppers entering an online shop have two major means at their disposal to locate the items they want – the navigation bar and search. Comparing online shopping to offline shopping can yield insightful conclusions and add a new dimension of analysis for etailers, particularly since these two tools have exact equivalents in the offline world.

Navigation is similar to simply browsing the aisles of an offline shop and looking at the shelves, while search is similar to approaching the shop’s salesperson and describing what you’re looking for.

This important insight sheds new light on the dimensions to be considered when evaluating on-site search solutions. A search solution should perform like a salesperson, not like an advanced search engine.

So why is this understanding of how search should work in an online shop so important?

Many analysts have lists of features and functionalities that are meant to help e-commerce managers evaluate on-site search solutions.
One example is the handling of wild cards - symbols that take the place of letters in Boolean searching, such as the character '+' between two keywords or subject terms instead of the word 'and'. But do search solutions for online shops really need the capability to handle wild cards?

Clearly, wild card handling is irrelevant in an offline setting, when a customer is interacting with a live salesperson. The salesperson will understand you even if you just give him a hint about what you want. This same capability should exist in an online shop without the wild card option. Wild card handling is relevant when searching databases - but not to the shopping experience.

Another example of a less than useful search functionality  for online shopping is the ability to handle Boolean search commands, again – functions relevant to the computer world, but not to shoppers that aren't generally conversant in the esoterics of search commands.

Thus the goal is for shoppers to have as close a shopping experience online as they have offline when interacting with a live salesperson.

First, a good search solution should have a comprehensive understanding of language. Continuing with the analogy of offline shopping, a good offline salesperson must first and foremost understand the language the shopper is speaking – in all its forms. This is the basic ability of a search solution for online shops as well.

Understanding the language means understanding singular vs. plural, morphological inflections, synonyms, idioms etc. For example, any salesperson in a shop will surely understand that a request for 'Italian shoes' is the same as 'shoes from Italy'. To date, most search solutions cannot make this leap, so do not return the same results for these essentially identical requests.
Continuing our analogy, a search solution’s inability to deliver in this important respect means a weak foundation of sales talent, and will be reflected in the site’s bottom line results.

Understanding language should also be deeper than that. Any live salesperson can understand the context of a request, which goes beyond the words themselves. For example, if a woman in an offline shop asks for a watch, it is more than likely the salesperson will not show her all the items in the shop that somehow make use of the word 'watch' (or watches). The salesperson will not show her a pair of binoculars whose packaging exclaims 'watch birds from 100 feet'.

Therefore, understanding language is not enough, a good search solution should understand the context as well.

Still, a salesperson in an offline shop with excellent language skills and a good understanding of concepts is not enough. Suppose someone comes to the shop and asks for a Canon 6 mega pixel digital camera. Suppose too, that the shop does not carry this specific item.  Any moderately capable offline salesperson understands that the shopper is looking for a 'digital camera' (the commodity), by 'Canon' (the brand name), with '6 mega pixels' (the attribute). The offline salesperson will tell the shopper that this specific item isn’t stocked and will offer him an alternative. It stands to reason that the alternative will not be a diiferent type of item made by Canon, or a camera case for a 6 mega pixel camera.

An offline salesperson does not have to be the most experienced in the world in order to suggest other digital cameras to the shopper; either another brand name (with 6 mega pixel) or Canon (with close to 6 mega pixel resolution). A slightly more experienced salesperson with greater familiarity with the industry would even know that brand name is more important than resolution for most people when buying a digital camera. Beyond linguistic and conceptual understanding, a good salesperson should understand the industry he or she works in.

To sum up, a salesperson – either offline or online, should understand language, context and the industry. These will make him or he quite good at his job. But the most important qualities a salesperson can have are being sensitive to shoppers’ requests, learning from them and gaining experience. An experienced salesperson with an aptitude for learning is extremely valuable and effective.

A good salesperson understands language, context and the industry. An excellent salesperson has interpersonal sensitivity and learns something new every day. Even the best offline salesperson does this. Trends come and go, people’s tastes change and technology never stays the same.

Imagine a salesperson in a clothing store handling requests for a 'blue shirt' every day and discovering that most of those people prefer a specific navy shirt and buy it. After several such sales, the offline salesperson will present this specific shirt first when people come in asking for a 'blue shirt'.

Or another example – an offline salesperson who sees that most people looking for cordless phones prefer one without an answering machine. A good salesperson will use this information to modify his or her sales pitch and will first offer a selection of phones without answering machines.

The qualities of a good salesperson do not end here though. Once the shopper has purchased the cordless phone, a smart salesperson will offer extra batteries in a cross-sell effort.

While it is not easy to mimic the abilities of an excellent offline salesperson in the online world, it is important for shops to aim towards that, and to make the shopping experience as close as possible to the offline one.

The optimal search solution for online shops is one that mimics most of the talents of an offline salesperson, and can actually parlay the advantages of the internet to perform even better than one. After all, only on the internet can you completely change the look and feel and the selection in your shop in light of knowledge about what your shopper is seeking.

Tal Rubenczyk is VP of marketing at Celebros.


Published 27 April, 2007 by Richard Maven

529 more posts from this author

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