25/03/2013

RESEARCH

For niche retailers, onsite search does not play a large part in e-commerce store navigation. When it is used however, it more than pays its way.

Screen Pages looked at onsite search usage on 21 e-commerce websites, most of which is a niche retailer selling own-brand goods, including Loake, Finisterre, Christopher Ward, Hush and Dove Spa. A few were "boutiques" selling goods from known brands & suppliers.

The number of products on offer ws typically in the hundreds and low thousands. The websites share common constructions - they are running on the Magento platform and use the software's standard search facility. The analysis was conducting using the search metrics from Google Analytics. The study was conducted for e-consultancy (read the full commentary here).

The average usage of onsite search was 5.75%, within a range of 18% to 1%. The two companies at the higher end of this range sold products (footwear) where size, style, colour selection is an important factor in decision-making.

However, when used, search performs very well: visitors converted at 4.63% versus the websites' average of 2.77% - that's 1.8 times more effective. Consequently, visitors using search contributed 13.8% of the revenues.

That said, there is room for improvement. 20% of people who used search went on to refine their searches (submit another search) and 21% exited the website from the search results.

Screen Pages also looked at the use of filters on these websites. Magento includes "attribute filtering" as a standard feature, where retailers can choose which features/fields can act as filters, generally as part of the left-hand navigation on category pages. Whilst the average usage was 6.6% of all pages viewed, there were two distinct groups of websites. On 10 of the 16 websites, pages where filters were less than 3% of all pages viewed, indicating that browsers prefer other methods of navigation. On the websites where filters were used by more than 8%, filters were used prominently alongside categeories more or less of equal visual weight (as opposed to a set of options below the main category menus).

Conclusions

Whilst much is made of onsite search, for niche brands in particular site search is not as important as other forms of navigation such as browsing via menus or actions driven by onsite merchandising (banners) or offsite marketing (email and search engine marketing).

When used by shoppers intent on finding the "right" product, search punches above its weight in terms of sales and conversions.

Given this data, it is wholly appropriate that retailers of these characteristics avail themselves of the "standard" search technologies provided by platforms like Magento, as opposed to investing in third-party search engines at additional cost. But efforts can still be made to optimise search performance.

Recommendations for quick wins include:

- Improve the merchandising and messaging on search results pages. Many retailers leave these pages as dead-ends. For example, show popular products and searches explicitly, with links to the relevant pages: this will reduce exit rates from 1 in 5.
- Study search terms used and improve overall navigation to capture popular searches before they are needed. One retailer's navigation was based around branded "collections" as opposed to product types, driving visitors to search for these "absent" product types.
- In Magento, retailers can determine which fields/attributes are searched: content managers should define a set of keywords for each product which can steer search results. Specific searches can also be re-directed to distinct URLs (e.g. "returns information").

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