It’s safe to say that the influence that Google has had in the last two decades has been phenomenal.

The search giant has completely changed the way we discover and access information, providing a faster and more direct path to what we are seeking. In fact, it is estimated that in 2016 over 2trn searches were made worldwide, equating to well over 50,000 per second. 

Introduction to responsive search

While search engine innovation continues to push new boundaries of user experience, working harder than ever to understand search intent, it is still only the larger websites which have embraced advanced site search technologies and reaped the benefits it can create.

Responsive site search is at a fundamental level the ability to sort through products or pages without the website requiring page reloads, keeping the user on the same page and website experience without any waiting time or delays.

The applications of the technology are fairly limitless, addressing any issue where there is a large amount of content.

Measuring the impact of responsive search

Over the last few years we’ve seen that responsive search experiences are regularly built into wider website redevelopment plans. This means it becomes incredibly difficult to isolate the impact the search experience has on site performance as there is no baseline of performance without responsive search. When there are so many different variables in the mix it is virtually impossible to decipher which part of the redevelopment was most effective, especially when considering conversion rate.

However, in 2016 we embarked on a project to implement a responsive product search experience into one of our client’s existing ecommerce websites, Schots Home Emporium. This created a unique opportunity to measure the impact the implementation has on the existing website’s performance with little influence from any other change.

We therefore thought it would make a great story for smaller ecommerce retailers to understand how it impacts user journeys, what is to be expected and some considerations to take into account before proceeding on a similar project.

The role of search in customer journeys

In order to define an implementation that was going to have the greatest possible impact on Schots Home Emporium’s user base it was important to consider where users were coming from and for what reason, segmenting them into distinct user flows. We kept this simple by identifying two main audiences:

  1. Non-brand visitors using search engines by product type and landing on category pages, e.g. wooden stools.

  2. Brand visitors often landing on the homepage either looking for a type of product or returning to a product they’ve seen at an earlier time (or in store).

Non-brand, new visitors

This user group is unlikely to be familiar with the brand or the website experience, and is arriving based on an organic or paid listing against a product type that the website has good visibility against. With over 10,000 products on offer through the Schots website, we were aware of the daunting task we were creating for our users.

What’s more, we knew that it is quite common for users to begin their search for furniture with an idea of what they are looking for already. For example, if you have a living room with a certain style and colour scheme you are likely to be looking for complementary furniture. 

With this in mind, we concluded it was crucial to have category-level product search. This would allow users to instantly filter through large quantities of products based on any keyword which is relevant to their requirements - colours, sizes, product categories, subcategories and other descriptive search queries.

Looking at the Furniture category page of the website, there are 20 pages of product results containing over 550 unique products in 17 different sub-categories - this is a lot of options for users to sort through!

The use of responsive search allowed for traditional sub-category use and other filtering options, while also supporting users who knew exactly what they were looking for.

Returning, brand visitors

As Schots sells a range of premium products, average order value is fairly high. This means the chance of impulse purchases is a lot lower and all transactions are more considered. This consideration can take weeks and months depending on what the item is, and this process means users will be leaving and returning to the website multiple times on their journey to purchase.

As such, we knew it was important for the search accessibility to be prominent on not only the homepage, but any page the user may be returning to. The conclusion was that the search experience needed to fit into the navigation as below.

The impacts of responsive search for Schots

There are hundreds of metrics and methods for segmenting data that could be used when looking at the impact of an A/B change of this scale, but we’ve split them into three defined groups based on what we considered to be the most important.

Traffic 

One of our core objectives when implementing this search functionality was to ensure that website traffic wasn’t disrupted, especially organic traffic which is so important to the client’s website. Even if conversion rate was to increase, it wouldn’t matter if a large amount of traffic was lost in the process.

Thankfully organic traffic not only didn’t take a hit, but is up considerably year on year. This may not be a result of the search experience as there are a series of other marketing initiatives in play, but it was pleasing to see a 46% uplift in traffic for the last quarter of 2016 verses the same period in the previous year.

Engagement

Some of the metric changes that stood out instantly were in regards to site engagement. Looking at a six-month year-on-year comparison we saw: 

  • Pages per session down 67%.
  • Session duration down 35%.
  • Pageviews down 50% (despite 51% more sessions).

On the surface of things this is alarming. However, when you consider what responsive search is doing, it makes perfect sense. Users are simply accessing content they wanted to reach without having to click through so many different pages, meaning they are taking less time to get there.

For Google Analytics to highlight these metrics in red is slightly wrong, because there are always two sides to the story when it comes to engagement metrics. 

Conversion

The metrics that most ecommerce retailers are interested in are transactions, revenue and conversion rate. It was therefore crucial that the investment in the technology and development of the search solution impacted the bottom-line performance of the website.

To ensure the data was consistent and less influenced by other activity I chose a few metrics to show the impact of the change. We recorded:

  • Direct transactions up 35%.
  • Organic transactions (homepage landing) up 33%.
  • AOV up 20%.
  • Revenue up 92%.

Note: There are dozens of factors, both internal and external that influence a website’s performance - it is impossible to attribute 100% of the success exclusively to the search implementation, but this data attempts to do so as close as possible.

Considerations

While we were blown away with the fairly clear cut results that the project delivered, there are several things you should consider before following suit. Here are a few things that we discussed in the early stages of scoping the project:

1. Don’t sacrifice organic landing pages

Too regularly we see technology and user experience considerations take priority, and crucial organic landing pages being sacrificed. Technology should complement your existing website, but for the majority of websites organic search should remain the most important consideration in every decision.

2. Is the inventory big enough to warrant the technology?

One of the benefits of this solution for our client was that they have a huge stock range. For a smaller ecommerce business with fewer products it probably wouldn’t have been necessary. I can’t tell you how many products you need to be “big enough”, but I think it should be thought about carefully to determine if the experience helps the user or just distracts from relatively simple user flows. 

3. Does the solution integrate with your customer journeys?

As discussed, the search experience was developed in relation to what we knew about core customer journeys. If Schots was selling products at a different price or within a different sector, it may not have had the same impact.

I’d recommend mapping your key customer journeys and seeing how it could influence the direction of your conversion optimisation and overarching marketing strategy.

Further reading:

Edwyn Raine

Published 6 March, 2017 by Edwyn Raine

Edwyn Raine is Digital Strategist at Evolution 7 and a guest blogger on Econsultancy. You can follow Edwyn on Twitter

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