Tuesday, February 2, 2010

E-Commerce Customer Experience 3: Search Tuning - People and Process

Post series written by Matthew Lynch (Senior Consultant at Charteris specialising in eCommerce). Before joining Charteris Matthew worked for IBM on various eCommerce enablement projects across multiple industries from the late 1990's through to the present day.
This series of blogs is about how product managers in an eCommerce business can influence and optimise the customer search experience on their website by tuning the on-site search engine.

Tuning search is like servicing your car; omit it and you risk losing value and breaking down. Get the habit and the right people
In the last blog entry, we covered what search tuning was and why it was important to do it in order to optimise the customer search experience on eCommerce websites. In this blog entry, we will explore the process that businesses should consider implementing in order to keep up-to-date with their search tuning.

Servicing your car is a chore, but most of us do it. Why? For peace of mind; perhaps to ensure you optimise its resale value, to prevent the inconvenience of breakdowns and to keep it safe. The same goes for search tuning. If you don’t tune your search regularly, the value of the search experience (and hence your eCommerce site) will reduce or may even breakdown (if customers can’t find product). Also, like skipping maintenance on your car, skipping maintenance on search means that you won’t know if anything is wrong and you won’t be able to predict when the reduction in performance or breakdowns might occur. Search tuning doesn’t need to be an onerous process either, as long as it’s done regularly, it shouldn’t need to take long.

Search tuning isn’t everone's forte.

Given the apparent technical nature of the task, you might be inclined to give it to your help desk, your web designers or your admin staff. Whilst their skillsets might fulfil two of the criteria required of the search tuning process : ‘attention to detail’ and ‘discipline’, they may not be able to adequately fulfil the key requirements of ‘product knowledge’ and ‘good language skills’.

Attention to detail is a desirable trait because, whatever tuning you do, if you do it wrong, it can be worse than not doing it at all. For example, if you mis-spell a synonym (e.g. you enter bart->kart instead of cart->kart, not only have you not corrected the customer’s problem that the synonym was supposed to resolve, but you have potentially created a new problem for the customer as well (people searching for Mario Kart won’t be satisfied AND those searching for Bart Simpson will be shown irrelevant products relating to Mario Kart as well).

Like attention to detail, discipline is important to ensure that search tuning is done regularly enough to catch problems before too many customers have experienced them and to ensure that any changes to search tuning are tested to make sure that they have the desired effect. The regularity of tuning will depend on the size and regularity of changes to your product / content catalogue and also the number of customers hitting your website. Once under way, you’ll get a feeling for how often you should be search tuning from the number and frequency of problems identified in the search reports after the initial set of search tuning sessions. You will have a bunch of things to fix when you start, then the number should settle down. Omitting to test changes means that you don’t know if you’ve actually made the experience any better and, just as importantly, you don’t know if you’ve inadvertently made it any worse. Testing is straightforward: check the search results on your website before making a change and compare it after tuning.

With the general skills sets out of the way, consider the two key specific skills your search tuning staff ought to have...Product knowledge is a must have. Without it, you won’t be able to pre-empt some problems let alone deal with ones that are identified in the analytics from your search tool.
For example, if you’re not into video games, it unlikely you would know that people using ‘wow’ or ‘cod’ as a search terms on the games retailer’s website were searching for the game titles ‘World of Warfare’ and ‘Call of Duty’.

Choosing someone to perform search tuning who has good language skills is probably a no-brainer, but should be kept in mind all the same. Knowing the difference between a noun, verb, adverb, adjective etc is useful as is the ability to spell and recognise the likely intended meaning behind search phrases that customers are using. If your website is represented in more than one language, if you can, get native speakers doing the search tuning, because they will have a much better feel for how their language is currently being used.

Prevent and react to search issues
Depending on the nature of searchable content your product or content teams are adding to the website, you may be able to prevent some search problems. There’s no harm, for example, in adding synonyms for words that are in the dictionary or synonyms between unique product acronyms and the full product title. With practice and analysis of your product set, you may find others as well.

That said, beware of doing search tuning for the sake of it. As mentioned before, it can be quite easy to make things worse than they were by being overzealous tuning search before you have seen any problems in your search reports.

Business-as-usual tuning

You should analyse your search analytics frequently for search terms that return zero results and search terms that return large numbers of results. Analysis of the zero results report should reveal acronyms, misspellings and typos that you should account for in your synonym database. It may also reveal searches for products that you don’t have for sale.

Search terms that result in too many results could be an indication of the term containing a word that occurs so frequently, it should be ignored or an indication that you should instruct your search engine to ensure an exact match ‘enforcing a phrase match’, thereby excluding partial matches from the list of results.

Consider tuning as new products are added to your catalogue. You may prevent problems occurring, for example, by adding known acronyms as synonyms. Again, beware of being over-zealous because adding unnecessary synonyms to your thesaurus just means there’s more work for the search engine, more to clean up later and more potential for incorrect entries. Let the analytics of real customer behaviour drive your main tuning activities.

As mentioned before, testing needs to be an integral part of the tuning process so that you know the effect of changes you make.

Search tuning housekeeping

Finally, bear in mind that, just because a synonym or enforced phrase worked at one time, doesn’t mean it will stay useful forever. This year you may setup a synonym of touch -> “ipod touch” because the “ipod touch” is popular right now and you know that there’s a lot of searches just using the word “touch”. However, at some point in the future the search term “touch” could be used in a completely different context by customers, hence the need for periodic reviews of your search tuning.

This concludes this set of blogs on search tuning.
Contact – matthew.lynch@charteris.com


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