More work is required to get retailers' search buttons functioning efficiently

"I have climbed the highest mountains, I have run through the fields". We can only assume that this was a metaphor for the problems Bono and the rest of us have when searching websites. Here's one example from a client engagement: a search for a raincoat produced the standard 'blame the customer' statement of "We can't find anything that matches what you entered or you may have entered a wrong term".

In addition, as is often the case, they also offered a set of alternative suggestions. This included a chandelier – clearly bought by customers lucky enough to find the raincoat; and presumably to swing from whilst wearing it!

A new search engine won't change a thing

This is about 'findability'. Just as in a physical store, you want customers to find the product they are looking for and, in our experience, the least likely way to achieve this will be to replace your current search engine.

Why? Well regardless of the engine you employ on your site search, outcomes are far less about technology and far more about how well your product managers have done their job. Whether your customer succeeds – or they don't – depends on how well your team has linked each product to the appropriate keywords and tags. It's rarely not found because you don't stock it, it's not found because the lack of the right links to common search terms.

There are also technical challenges with changing your search function – not least that you risk losing valuable data and reducing the success rate you currently have. This was certainly the case for one big brand retailer who made the mistake of investing in new search technology to fix 'search', only to watch in horror as search performance went backwards; and, with it, eCommerce revenue, whilst their team frantically tried to rebuild links and re-establish keywords to bring performance back to its original levels.

So what happens when you get a failed search response as a customer? Well, you probably haven't used a term that has been linked to the product you are looking for. This does not mean that as a customer you are wrong. On the contrary, the retailer has failed to account for a wide range of search term possibilities.

What will change performance is how you deal with failed search

Many failed search pages are successful at condemning the customer for not guessing correctly what term your product team think they should use – this is not good practice. Start by accepting the blame: it isn't the customer's fault if they haven't guessed the term you have chosen to link to the product in question. Then apologise. After that, your failed search page should help them find the product in another way.

Following a failed search, the most effective strategy we have employed to drive sales is to offer the customer the opportunity to navigate towards categories or brand choices. If you have a 'call us' link, or live chat function, this is also an ideal place to offer this. If you don't stock a particular item but know you have alternatives that are as good, then offer these. For example, when we investigated one of our clients failed search terms, we discovered a high number of potential customers were searching for the term 'Bolero Jacket'. In this case, the client didn't stock any products titled 'Bolero', but did stock something the same in every aspect other than name. So we linked the keywords to these products instead – simultaneously rectifying a failed search term, helping the customer search and increasing conversions.

It is also good practice to create a report on failed search terms that you encounter every week; and to create a routine in which you can respond to this by offering alternatives – if you do not stock the product – or by adding these terms to existing products so that customers can find them next time.

Navigation is an important part of the solution

It is important to ensure that you are grouping your products in places that the customer will expect to find them and that you are calling them what your customers call them, not the name your supplier associates with them.

We discovered that one client grouped their products in a way that was logical for their accounts department but not the customer. This is endemic across eCommerce: products are usually grouped in the way the retailer views the market, not centred on customer behaviour.

Small changes, big wins – refining your offering

Failing to utilise generic search terms in a multi-product shop is a mistake. By ensuring the search box on your page is easily visible, however, you are making the cognitive process simpler for the customer. An international offering will require a wider range of search terms for individual products.

Insights:

  • The role of the search and navigation function is to deliver findability.
  • Getting navigation right is a critical part of enabling success.
  • It’s not the search engine that is failing, but your e-commerce team.
  • An extensive database of successful and unsuccessful search terms is an important ‘test and learn’ tool to improve findability.
  • Handle failed search as your fault, not the customer’s - and offer alternative ways to find what they are looking for, not other products they don’t want.

Actions:

  • Group your products in a manner that is logical to your customers, not the way in which your company views the market.
  • Offer simple search refinements following a failed search – anything complicated will confuse customers.
  • Simple changes to copy and offering alternative products will significantly improve customer experience.
  • Gather the data accrued from failed searches – this will help in developing your search function.
  • Make your webpage’s search box clear and obvious.

In the next and final instalment in this Essential Retail-Good Growth series of articles, in June, we will look at innovation and how digital supports design-led thinking.

James Hammersley is the co-author of ‘Leading Digital Strategy’, a guide to eCommerce strategy published by Kogan Page. He is a founding partner and director of Good Growth, a digital change consultancy that has worked with organisations such as The Economist, The Co-operative, O2 and Manchester United.