Intelligent search is quite an intriguing concept. It has gained a lot of attention for both optimizing search results and for guiding ecommerce site visitors to where the system thinks you want to go but may actually be where others want you to go.
Smart Search Engines
The most common form of intelligent search starts with search engine queries. We are all aware of search engine marketing (SEM) or paid search techniques where Pay-Per-Click (PPC) ads float to the top of a search engine results page or where promoted vendors show up at the top of a list. It’s no secret that Google makes its money with paid search and we are used to this sort of intelligence. We are also well aware of organic methods of driving traffic to a website such as search engine optimization (SEO). The entire purpose of SEO is to get a site to be ranked higher by the search engine than its competitors. Both SEM and SEO are used in concert with intelligent heuristics to try and truly give you the best possible “hits” on each and every search you type into Google.
Internal Site Search
There is another type of search, however, that utilizes intelligence—what a site knows about you, your previous shopping behavior, and the behavior of people like you—and that’s the search within a site for given products. Often, a site will remember your previous purchases and guide you to items you may be interested in based on those purchases or give you information about a sale in a merchandise category that you’ve selected or searched on before. NetFlix is the perfect example of this sort of intelligent search and does a great job of guiding you to movies that you may like based on movies you have indicated you liked in the past.
The question is this: How far is too far for a site to go in trying to assist you in finding the things you want?
While intelligent search can be a powerful tool, I think it is important to be aware of how helpful the system is being—and when it may not be being helpful at all. The suggestive selling technique employed by internal site search engines is called searchandising. A collection of tools, technologies, and techniques to rank a search result based on what the etailer’s goals are, searchandising may be used to clear inventory, promote items with the highest profit margins or promote items purchased by shoppers with similar items in their cart.
This is not evil technology –it is simply the electronic equivalent of merchandising and sound sales practices. However, just as the store clerk on commission will often show you how great the really expensive outfit is first, so follows the internal site search function utilizing searchandising. The same is true for items that an online store wishes to clear out. In a physical store, those items are often displayed on an end cap with an appealing sale sign. Searchandising can also be used in a similar fashion, promoting the inventory that a company wishes to clear first. The key is to be aware that searchandising techniques are being used when you shop online.
In this world of massive transaction processing and ultra fast computers that remember every keystroke and click you make on a site, keep in mind that the ultimate goal of an etailing site is to sell you its wares. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that– just know that items that appear on the top of a search results list aren’t necessarily the items you want to buy as much as the ones the etailer wants to sell you. As always, and perhaps especially in the digital world–caveat emptor–let the buyer beware.
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Tom Frishberg is Chief Information Officer at Insite Software. He can be reached at email@example.com.