Leverage Web Site Search as a Core Conversion Strategy

In many ways, doing business online is more art than science. What will your customers want next? How do you showcase products and information in the best possible light?

Simply offering a well-executed site search, for example, has been shown to increase customer engagement and the amount of time spent on a site—and for e-commerce sites in particular, it can double or even triple online conversions. When you tailor the experience for individual shoppers, those numbers can go significantly higher. What's more, customer loyalty to your brand rises, too, as engaged customers are more likely to become repeat buyers, recommend your site to their friends, and even post positive comments about you on their social networks.

Localization, integrated social media feeds, and virtual personal shoppers that serve up a user's preferred brands and themes based on purchase history have become commonplace—and with them, expectations have risen.

If you're looking to deliver a more personalized site search experience, here are a few ways to encourage site visitors to bring their business to you.

Display shoppers' search histories. Listing recent searches is an unobtrusive and welcome way to leverage what you know about a shopper. People appreciate that they don't need to retype information or remember the exact spelling of a product name, and the helpful reminder may guide them more quickly to completing a purchase. Floral retailer FTD.com, for example, displays "Recent Searches" in the left navigation above the refinement options whenever a returning site visitor performs a search. If a shopper searches for "hydrangeas" today but doesn't complete a purchase, he won't have to retype the word again tomorrow. "Hydrangeas" will be waiting for him when he returns.

Let users choose preferred brands or products. If you offer a large inventory, you can make things easier on customers by allowing them to narrow down their options to what's relevant to them. These preferences can even be stored for future visits. Motorcycle parts and accessories Web site Cruiser Customizing, for example, allows shoppers to preselect a motorcycle make and model. As a result, the site's search function serves up only those items that might be suitable for the owner's particular bike. Reducing search results from 25 pages to just a few is a welcome improvement in the experience.

Allow registered users to see unique pricing and other information. Your site may attract both business clients and individual consumers, and you may offer unique pricing options for each. SunWize, an online provider of home solar systems, sells products through its Web site to its national network of distributors as well as government and other commercial entities. When a registered user logs on to the site, pricing and product information is categorized according to what type of buyer he or she is—and that information is also displayed in the site search results.

Make results local. The proliferation of smartphones has helped users become accustomed to seeing localized information appear in search results. You can similarly customize your site by asking shoppers to provide a ZIP code. Users are often happy to provide this extra bit of not-too-personal data, as it ensures that they see a narrower set of results that are actually relevant to them—particularly if you can include "in stock" information along with product results. If your business has brick-and-mortar locations where products can be picked up, this can be a huge win for shoppers and for you.

Tractor and lawn mower retailer Tractor Supply asks visitors for their ZIP codes as soon as they arrive at its home page. Because product availability and pricing vary by region, this allows the company to ensure it's providing accurate information and reduce the risk of frustrating a potential customer. This capability allows you to sweeten the experience even further. Once you know where a shopper lives, you can display banners promoting region-specific offers throughout the site.

Integrate with social. Many Web sites allow visitors to sign in using their Facebook user names and passwords. In addition to streamlining the account sign-up process, this lets shoppers see who in their social circle may have liked or commented on a product. I expect that we've merely scratched the surface of social networking and retail integration. It won't be long before retailers can take this deeper—perhaps allowing visitors to sort search results based on how many of their friends have liked a product, or showing products their connections have recommended. As Pinterest has gained popularity, retailers are seeing pinned images actually drive brick-and-mortar sales. Showing visitors what products in their search results have been pinned by their friends is a logical next step.

Match experiences to each device. Most people nowadays move seamlessly from desktop computers and laptops to tablets and smartphones. They expect the Web sites they visit to do the same, adjusting the experience along with them. This goes beyond delivering mobile-friendly search—it requires delivering appropriate information depending on a user's location or platform.

It's time to stop thinking about site search as a simple tool or plug-in, and begin seeing it as part of your core strategy for driving greater sales and loyalty. After all, research shows that people who use your search box have a higher conversion rate and lower site abandonment rate, making the search experience on your site an integral part of the total online experience. Personal touches—whether through search results or other tactics—can help shoppers feel more connected to your brand and give them more reason to purchase your products and return to your site.

Geoff Brash is the cofounder of SLI Systems.

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