Since the advent of search engines such as Yahoo, Lycos, and Google in the mid-90s, search is the core mechanic for finding content on the web. The role search plays in e-commerce product discovery is unquestionable. Online customers don’t browse the entire ‘aisle’ as they might in a traditional retail store. When looking for what they want, they are increasingly savvy at detailed search queries or browsing the specific subcategory. A trip to the store means hundreds or thousands of products are up for consideration. But e-commerce buyers can make their minds after just looking at a handful of search results.
At BlueBoard, our mission is to help brands grow their online business. Learning how to position their products in those top results is a significant part of this.
As brands and manufacturers progressively embrace the switch to a digital-first approach, traditional retail notions must be completely redefined. Of course, concepts like market share and brand awareness still mean the same thing in the digital era, but other KPIs, like the share of shelf, must be redefined.
The traditional share of shelf is about the number of SKUs and shelf facings placed at customer eye level. The digital shelf is a whole different ball game, with search at its heart; how often your products show up in search results may very well be the factor with the most substantial influence on commercial success for brands and manufacturers.
How should brands and manufacturers measure current search performance? Can they improve the placement of their products? Which actions should they prioritize?
- Search as a traffic channel
- E-Commerce Search algorithms
- E-Commerce keywords
- Search performance tactics
- Measuring search performance
- BlueBoard Search Performance solution
Search as a traffic channel
There is little doubt that search will remain a cornerstone of e-commerce sales strategy. That is despite the importance of social media in discoverability and investment in technologies to determine what people want. While text-based search still makes up the vast majority of activity, new search behaviors are slowly emerging. Voice-activated search has existed in phone apps for some time. With the ascent of home assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, they are more frequent in e-commerce searches. Meanwhile, advancements in AI-powered image recognition software allow more e-tailers, especially in apparel and interior design, to implement visual search engines.
Search drives traffic to e-tailer sites
According to Wolfgang Digital, search directs 58% of traffic to e-tailer sites, whether it’s an organic search or paid search (in both cases it means mostly Google).
Non-Search-Related e-commerce traffic comes from email marketing, social sharing, display advertising, and referrals.
Optimizing for Google Search, however, is not the priority for most brands. Small brands on niche markets that sell on their websites can try and play this game. But for most others, either the fight is not worth it, or it is lost in advance. They cannot match the SEO firepower that Amazon-like marketplaces have. The best they can hope for is to have their product pages on these marketplaces shown in Google search results. For most large-scale brands, this does not matter though: they make the bulk of their business on these marketplaces and e-tailers sites. They can leave the hard work of SEO to them and focus on how their products appear on e-commerce sites, as opposed to their competitors'.
How people discover content on e-tailer sites
Once a consumer has reached an e-tailer site, how do they navigate those sites, and how do they get to product pages? Three main mechanisms allow users to go from one page to the next.
- On-site search: the search bar that 99% of sites have
- The recommendation modules such that often are at the bottom of product pages ("people who looked at this product have also considered these products")
- Category browsing: some people still use only their mouse to drill down from categories into subcategories until they find what they need.
Putting an exact figure on the respective share of each three of these mechanisms is extremely difficult. Of course, the split varies tremendously between sites, as they will all put different levels on emphasis on different types of navigation.
Whether it's on-site search, recommendation engine or category browsing, it all comes down to lists of products. And if your products are in them or no. Each site has a different method to come up with these lists, but whatever they are, it always comes down to rules in a search algorithm.
Read more: How Important Is E-Commerce Product Search?
E-Commerce search algorithms
Search algorithms are mathematical formulas that create an ordered list of results for each search terms (or search tokens) that they receive. Each search algorithm is defined by the factors that it takes into account to pick and rank the results. If we can understand which settings an algorithm is looking at, then we can figure out some tactics to improve the ranking of our products.
Algorithms come in all sorts of shapes and colors. An efficient way to look at them is to split them into three groups:
- Text-based algorithms: they rely only on text resemblance between the search terms and product page texts.
- Business-based algorithms: they add a layer of business intelligence to rank products based on the expected business outcome.
- User-based algorithms: they rank results based on known user parameters and inferred preference.
Creating and optimizing computer programs to recognize matching strings of text in large databases in a mathematical field of its own. We do not need to delve into such details though. What text-based algorithms do, as far as e-commerce is concerned, is surface product pages that include the inputted text. They feature different levels of advancement:
- some will only find exact matches, while others support typos, plurals or the same words in any order,
- some just look up the words in the product titles, while others index the descriptions, specs, categories, etc.
These algorithms introduce some layers of intelligence in the way that they rank the results. They pick results to display to the customers based on some business factors.
As an e-tailer, your goal is to make sure that as many searches as possible result in a sale. The way to do that is to display relevant products, that sell better than others. It means that your algorithm will usually select all relevant results, then rank them. The algorithm is "fed" some additional variables to come up with a score. These may include:
- Sales velocity
- Average review score
- Number of pictures on the product page
- Average search result CTR (how often is this product clicked on when displayed)
- Current stock status (show out-of-stock products last)
Advanced business-based search algorithms like Amazon's factor in dozens of variables into search rankings.
These are the algorithms that are capable of tailoring search results based on what they know from the customer. A straightforward example might be:
- a shopper searches for "shoes" on an apparel site,
- the shopper only clicks on male shoes in the search results,
- the shopper then searches for "trousers,"
- the algorithm displays all male trousers at the top of the results.
In that case, the algorithm figured that the shopper was probably more interested in male clothes. It uses this knowledge to increase the relevance of results for this shopper. Other user-based mechanisms may include segmenting based on browsing behaviors, the device used, past purchases, etc.
E-Commerce search keywords
Text and therefore words are at the heart of even the most advanced algorithms. Finding the right e-commerce keywords to monitor, include in product pages, and use in ads is a critical task for e-commerce managers. While some shoppers come with an exact product in mind, many will search for generic terms like “electric toothbrush” or “AA batteries”. Brands need to stay on top of which search expressions customers use in order to ensure their products appear.
Category search keywords should attract most of your focus because they will generate traffic which is “up for grabs”. Trying to score sales from searches for competitor brand names instead of category searches is a losing battle.
The sub-categories of search keywords are (examples from the portable speaker category):
- product category aliases (e.g., portable speaker, wireless sound system, Bluetooth loudspeaker…),
- differentiating features (e.g., waterproof, shockproof, built-in mic, stereo, remote),
- compatibility (e.g., iPhone, Android, Samsung, Bluetooth low energy…),
- use cases (e.g., sport, beach, party, shower…).
Finding the right keywords for your products
A few different services exist to assist your keyword research:
Brands that advertise on Amazon can download an extensive search term report to see which terms lead to their products. For each term, you can see how many impressions and clicks were generated.
Many search bars on e-commerce sites have an auto-complete feature. Use this feature to test how your products are found and look for missing terms or terms which do not lead to your products even though they should.
Google Search Console
Analyze the keywords which led users to your site. Google traffic does not perfectly equate to traffic which buys, but it is a good enough proxy.
If you do not have access to search volumes from your e-commerce partners, try this service and compare up to 5 search expressions at a time. Use the filter to narrow it to Google Shopping searches.
Good-sounding keywords may not be the ones that generate the most searches. In addition to finding the right keywords, you should get a rough idea of how much traffic they generate relatively to each other. Most of the services we mentioned above will provide some metrics. Use them to prioritize your keywords.
Search performance tactics
We have now established a clear link between search performance and sales. Additionally, we have a few keys to understanding how algorithms process what data they have to come up with search rankings. The next logical step is to know how we can influence them to favor our products.
As a rule of thumb, you should not expect to flip the table and easily claim the top spot. Search performance tactics are about optimizing your listings to increase your rankings marginally. Different tactics will yield different results depending on the type of algorithm.
Tactic 1: Optimize your product titles for search
This tactic works for every algorithm. It is also the most efficient that we've seen. As a brand, you usually can define what your product titles should be on e-tailer sites. Since the title is the first thing that gets indexed, you should make sure that you align it with what people search.
We suggest a recipe for the perfect product titles:
- Brand name + product name
- Best subcategory description keyword
- 2 to 3 differentiating features
- 1 or 2 compatibility or use cases.
What you need to do is include the best category keyword (e.g., smartwatch, trash can, AA battery, A4 notebook) for your product. This will ensure that your products show up in generic searches (as opposed to brand searches). If you have more than one very relevant category name, use both. Check this example by Logitech where they include both Headphone and Headset.
In this example, Logitech uses a variety of category aliases, compatibility and differentiating features to optimize the search potential of the product while maintaining a non-spammy name
All sites have different rules as to how long product titles can be. Although some people seem to think that products titles should be short and compelling, we believe you should use all available characters as long as the title does not look spammy.
An experience with Withings on Amazon.com showed that longer, more detailed product titles not only generated more search impressions but also improved CTRs.
Tactic 2: Improve ratings on products that have few reviews
As we mentioned earlier in business-based algorithms, factors like average review score are sometimes used to rank products in search results. If you can identify which sites do factor them in, you can then work to improve your averages for the products that have few reviews as the impact on average will be higher.
As basic as it might seem, if the website does allow responses to reviews, you should really do that. At the very least, on the negative reviews. Sometimes the user can amend their rating if they are happy with the resolution of any potential issues. But also, being reactive increases your chances of receiving positive reviews. As a consumer, you’re more likely to speak if you feel like you’re being listened to.
You might also want to consider ways that you can incentivize clients to leave reviews throughout the different touch points that you have with the buyer. When they sign up to register their product, you could prompt them to leave a review. What you put in the product packaging, and even engaging promoters on social media can be something you can look into.
And last but not least, if you have a good relationship with your e-tailers, it’s possible to have negative reviews removed if you think they are dishonest or did not come from a verified purchase. And that is especially important if you have one or two negative reviews that are driving down your average.
Tactic 3: Be an A-player on content
Having excellent product page content will influence your search performance in many ways.
First, even text-based algorithms mostly index the textual content of your page (description, specs). By just writing top quality, informative descriptions and making sure all specs are filled out, you increase the relevance of your products in the eyes of most algorithms.
Some more advanced algorithms look at the number of pictures, the presence of Enhanced brand content, etc. We used to look at content solely under the spectrum of conversion. Top brands have now figured that it also impacts search performance. Content opportunities vary from site to site, but you should make sure that you make the most of them.
Measuring search performance
We wrote an article on the topic of Monitoring the e-commerce search performance of a brand where we introduce the notion of Search Ranking Score. In one sentence, we believe that you should measure first-page brand impressions for all relevant keywords at your top e-tailers every day.
First-page brand impressions
The consensus is that, on average, 80% of clicks and an even higher percentage of sales come from the first page of results. Sales you score from 2nd-page impressions will always be few and far between. It makes monitoring a lot simpler to focus on the first page while getting most of the business value.
Aggregate all results by brands for an easy-to-read view.
For all relevant keywords
See Finding the right keywords for your products above for technics to determine what your keywords should be. Add brand names, including your competitors. You may learn that competitor B is sponsoring its listings for the competitor A keyword.
At your top retailers
Don't waste your time measuring search performance at small e-tailers. Your efforts can pay higher dividends if you concentrate your focus on the bigger ones.
If you have any experience with SEO (optimizing your sites for the Google search engine), you may know that it takes a lot of time. And that is because Google’s algorithm is very complicated and factors in thousands of different variables, so if you make a change to your site, it may not do anything for a couple of weeks. Then change your rank by one or two, in two weeks. So if you measure your SEO scores and SEO rankings every month, every once in a while, that’s enough.
Search performance is different. E-Commerce search algorithms are much more sensitive, even the most advanced ones. Changes that you make today could have an impact as early as tomorrow. New product releases, sales, stock issues, reviews, changes to product pages all have an impact on search rankings and so they vary by the day. If you are serious about improving your search performance, you should iterate on a daily basis while continuously checking the impact of your actions on your rankings.
BlueBoard Search Performance solution
- View the entire picture of your market, keyword by keyword, e-tailer by e-tailer,
- Track progress over time and monitor performance against your competition,
- Identify underperforming products, allowing you to plan actions to improve ranking,
- Identify best-performing organic search queries to de-prioritize ad campaigns.
It features unlimited history storage, automatic search ranking score computation, full API access and is super easy to set up.