How mobile is transforming product search — and why voice may be next

Often overshadowed by flashier digital innovations, search remains the foundation of online shopper satisfaction. But search deficiencies on mobile are leaving customers feeling lost.

More than a quarter century after the introduction of Archie, considered by historians the first web search engine, search is still an integral component of the digital user experience. Search boxes — models of design simplicity comprising nothing more than a text input field and submit button (and, sometimes, a magnifying glass icon for flair) — are fixtures of virtually every content-rich website, enabling consumers to pinpoint anything and everything they’re seeking in a matter of keystrokes.

Search tools are especially critical to shopper satisfaction, according to a new study conducted by omnichannel personalization services provider RichRelevance. Among the roughly 1,000 U.S. online consumers surveyed last month, 83% said the search box is "important" or "extremely important" to them when shopping on a retailer’s web or mobile site, and 76% said they "always" or "often" use the search box when visiting a merchant site.

“Search is still the primary way that consumers are navigating, both to retailer sites and once they’re on the retailer’s site,” RichRelevance Chief Marketing Officer Diane Kegley told Retail Dive.

But search is struggling to keep up as consumers migrate to mobile. U.S. retail mobile commerce sales are on pace to eclipse $123 billion in 2016, up 39.1% year over year, based on a recent eMarketer forecast. But 35% of American shoppers surveyed by RichRelevance said they are generally dissatisfied with the search results they receive on a mobile device; 38% complained they receive worse search results when shopping on their mobile device than on laptop or desktop.

“As we move to mobile devices, the search box is even more relevant,” Kegley said. “But the search industry has not innovated to address the importance of mobile. Consumers are not getting the level of experience they can get on their laptop, or even on their iPad.”

Whatever the device, poor search results can be catastrophic. Nearly three in four shoppers surveyed by RichRelevance said they are likely to abandon a retail site that doesn’t deliver quality search results — and 37% say they are not at all likely to return.

“Search is not a new feature. It’s not a new concept. It’s been around forever, essentially. You want something, you know you have to find it,” Jolie Katz, RichRelevance’s director of product marketing, told Retail Dive. “But search is not as easy as customers want it to be.”

Innovation and personalization

RichRelevance, which partners with more than 230 multinational companies including Office Depot, Costco and Marks & Spencer, began exploring and analyzing the shopper search experience about 18 months ago. “We have a series of customer advisory events all over the world. The number one issue for them was search,” Kegley said. “There wasn’t enough innovation in the search market for them to deliver a true omnichannel customer experience.”

It’s not necessarily retailers’ fault. “The way search has been architected to this date requires a heavy load of IT support, so a search manager or e-commerce manager can put in a request to the IT department to change the rules, change the overall measurements and change the priorities, but they have to wait in the queue for those changes to get implemented,” she said. “That creates a backlog of innovation.”

The search innovations eluding retailers’ grasp include personalization — leveraging a shopper’s current and past behaviors, brand affinities and price preferences to boost product discovery and drive sales.

“Search is subjective. When you type ‘black jacket,’ you might mean a sports coat, but when I type ‘black jacket,’ maybe I mean a leather jacket,” Katz said. “So if I were delivered results on a sports jacket, that would be a completely irrelevant experience for me.”

More than one in three consumers surveyed by RichRelevance would like to see search results based on their previous shopping activities and preferences. Personalizing search results extends to knowing when a shopper is looking for a gift, a behavior poised to become increasingly common as the holidays draw closer. In fact, 37% of consumers surveyed by RichRelevance said site search is “more important” when shopping for gifts than it is in other shopping contexts, with 48% of respondents ranking the ability to “easily search and find products” as the single most critical factor when shopping for gifts on a retailer’s site — far ahead of product ratings and reviews (the second most popular feature) at 26%.

“Personalization is the ability to anticipate what consumers are doing,” said Kegley. “It’s also recognizing that search is something personal, but you can also be searching for gifts for a family member or friend.”

Behavioral analysis

RichRelevance is responding to the challenge with Find, a new search product the company unveiled late last month at the Shop.org retailer conference in Dallas. The cloud-based Find promises more relevant, real-time product search results based on current and past customer behaviors tracked across devices and platforms. The corresponding Find dashboard enables retailers to execute changes and manage search functionality, eliminating waits in IT queues.

“Since we’re implanted on so many retailers’ sites, we know everything about their customers’ shopping behavior. We can then instill that information into the search results that they see,” said Katz. “We’re giving [retailers] the ability to react in real time to customer queries. They also get access to a dashboard that enables them to boost and link and do all the things that traditional search can do, but immediately, and simultaneously have access to reports so that they can understand what’s happening.”

Regardless of whether or not retailers integrate Find, Kegley says they must rethink their search efforts to accommodate omnichannel customer behaviors, and recognize the essential role that search plays across virtually all phases of the shopping journey, especially on mobile. Google data published last month states that 70% of smartphone owners who bought something in a store first turned to their devices for insight relevant to that purchase, and 92% of consumers who searched for a product on their phone went on to make a related purchase.

If you think those numbers are eye-popping, consider how much sales would increase if retailers were delivering more satisfying mobile search results.

“[Improving search] comes down to connecting all the different channels together to make the search experience more pleasant and relevant, and understanding that search is not just something that’s being executed on [a retailer’s] primary website but in mobile apps and on mobile devices,” Kegley said. “It can even affect the in-store experience as well, in terms of the ability for the consumer to instantaneously find what they’re looking for and take immediate action. [Stores] are still where the majority of purchases are occurring.”

And while text-based queries have been a staple of web search since the advent of Archie, they’re no longer the only game in town. Voice-activated search is starting to gain traction in retail: Amazon’s voice-controlled Echo speaker, powered by the e-commerce giant’s Alexa artificial intelligence technology, not only supports a series of functions like answering questions, playing music and controlling smart devices, but also drives sales. Owners of the Echo spent around 10% more on Amazon in the six months after they bought the speaker than before they had the device, with purchase frequency also growing 6%, according to data collected by NPD Group's Checkout Tracking purchase monitor. Echo owners conduct about half of their total online spending at Amazon after they buy the device, NPD adds.

Alexa and rival AI technologies haven’t yet had a comparable impact on shopping behaviors across desktop and mobile devices. But just give it time.

“You’re seeing more and more customers speaking into a device and expecting it to have information for them,” Katz said. “We’re not seeing retail customers speaking into their phone and saying ‘Show me Prada shoes,’ but it’s definitely where search very well might go to make it an easier, more seamless experience.”

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