From the November 2004 issue of Entrepreneur

The success of Google's search technology has transformed web users, who were already a sophisticated group of consumers, into even savvier searchers who now expect a top-notch experience on every site they visit-which could be a problem for e-tailers. Many site search engines still offer too many irrelevant results, too few results or none at all.

Feeling the pressure, netpreneurs are improving the search functions they already have or adding sophisticated search technologies to their sites for the first time. "One way to distinguish yourself from your competition on the web is to give people a really painless experience finding what they want on your website," says Avi Rappoport, editor of SearchTools.com and principal consultant at Search Tools Consulting in Berkeley, California.

There are many options to choose from when it comes to upgrading site search. One approach is to simply add Google's search appliance to your site; it will deliver the same high-quality results to your site that Google delivers on the web at large. Another approach is to add faceted navigation-also called guided navigation, guided shopping, search-and-navigation or search-and-browse. This function allows visitors to narrow search results into smaller sets, based on a series of choices presented to them as results are returned. For example, if a visitor types in bags, she can see a list of choices tied to product attributes such as brand, material and price.

Faceted navigation also allows merchants to display results based on merchandising rules. So if a clothing e-tailer wants to promote a certain type of pants at a particular time of year, those pants will come up first in the results. Leading vendors that offer this type of search technology include Atomz, Dieselpoint, EasyAsk, Endeca Technologiesand iPhrase Technologies.

Search Success

CompactAppliance.com, an online retailer that sells space-saving appliances, is one company that's achieved success with its search technology. (The parent company is Richlund Ventures Inc. in Austin, Texas.) Last year, CompactAppliance.com, which expects 2004 sales to exceed $10 million, upgraded its search technology to a more sophisticated solution that would provide better, more relevant results. It chose Atomz' search-and-browse solution, which allows visitors who make a general search to sort by subcategories, such as color or price, within that search.

According to the president and founder of CompactAppliance.com, Rick Lundbom, 30, "It's very important to us that we offer our customers the best experience we possibly can when they are searching for products or other information on our site, and this solution offered that." The company also signed up for Atomz Promote, which lets retailers merchandise related products or provide more detailed information in addition to search results.

The move appears to be paying off. CompactAppliance.com has seen a 35 percent increase in overall sales, as well as significant growth in its online marketing campaign conversions and customer loyalty since implementing Atomz' solutions.

Search-and-navigate, however, is not the only advanced search technology you can add to your site. Consider the solution used by Prints.com, a Milwaukee-based online seller of prints, posters, framing and related gift items. The company, which also has a gallery, projects 2004 sales to surpass $1 million.

When Jim Felker, president and founder of Prints.com, decided to add search to his site, he chose technology from Netrics, which focuses on correcting customers' spelling and input errors. Netrics Search produces results with accuracy by modeling the human notion of similarity. This approach finds correct results, even when data and queries contain a wide spectrum of errors, variations and structural incompatibilities. For any given query, there will never be a "no results found" response.

"Netrics' error tolerance is what sold it for me," says Felker, 46. "You can misspell things and still find what you're looking for on our site." Such spelling correction is key to a site like Prints.com. Artists' names are often tricky, and the titles of artwork can be confusing since shoppers can't always remember the exact word order.

Before adding Netrics, Prints.com lacked a search function on its site-it only had a drop-down box listing about 50 popular artists visitors could click on to get to what they wanted. Advanced search became a necessity as the company grew and added products. "People have high expectations when it comes to search," says Felker, who's seen a 50 percent increase in sales since implementing the search function. "Google has clearly raised the bar."

Hosted solutions targeting small to midsize businesses range from $70,000-split into thirds throughout a three-year contract-down to $750 per month and everything in between. As an alternative, for about $5,000 per month, some vendors partner with companies that provide managed hosting of e-commerce sites and include the functionality as part of a managed monthly service.

The price may be worth it if you sell most of your products online. "When companies implement browse-and-navigate search and advanced search tools, what they see is increased conversion rates and increased revenue from those searching visitors," says Eric T. Peterson, a site technology and operations analyst with Jupitermedia, an IT news and research provider in New York City. "This type of approach offers the best of both worlds. So what this means is, you have to spend money to make money."

According to Felker, who pays Netrics $750 per month for its service, "While $750 sounds like a lot, compared to the alternatives, it's nothing. It's kind of nominal in the big picture because if people can't find things on your site, they're gone."

Can you afford to add advanced search tools to your site? Perhaps the real question is, Can you afford not to?


Melissa Campanelli is a marketing and technology writer in New York City.