Converging Search and Browse

  |  May 4, 2007   |  Comments

The key to convergence is finding ways to create a rich user experience and encourage return visits.

There have always been two major ways people find content and products online: browsing and searching. Depending on your industry, you may find an equal split between browsers and searchers or a disproportionately large amount of one group over the other.

Everyone talks about the convergence of searching and browsing. But I haven't seen many sites that truly merge the two. Rather, sites tend to replace one with other. Today we'll look at these worlds and talk about convergence and replacement.

Traditionally, the user browsing experience has been extremely different from that of searching. In the browsing world, users are taken through a series of pretty pages, each merchandised by a merchandising team, with content from the editorial team. The pages follow the flow of the site's hierarchy. In the retail world, that's most likely a path based on product type and subcategories within that type. In the finance world, it's usually based on the services the company offers, such as mortgages or retirement planning.

The search experience has typically cut horizontally across all categories or hierarchies. Search in the retail space generally results in products of all shapes and sizes that match the keywords entered. In the last five years, we've seen smart filtering technologies that allow search results to be refined by category and other attributes. This is a kind of a convergence, because it allows users to browse search results as they please.

Some sites try to turn searchers into browsers. If you do a search for a term that's also a category, for instance, some sites take you directly to that category. This makes sense, because searching for "rings" on a jewelry site would most likely yield hundreds or thousands of rings. Because the site has a fully merchandised category called Rings, why not bring the user there instead?

On the other hand, if the site has a robust filtering technology that allows the search to be narrowed quickly based on stone, size, metal, and price range (and the browsing experience doesn't), this may be a better way to get users to the right products quickly. It might not make sense to force them to navigate through your category hierarchy, especially if your categorizations are so rigid they preclude users from shopping the way they want to. In other words, if there is no easy way for the user to view all rings with diamonds or all rings with white gold, then your browsing experience isn't optimal.

Other sites try to turn browsers into searchers. Sites that used to have a lot of editorial content and merchandised pages now look for automated solutions to reduce expenses and cut the time it takes to create new pages. They rely on their search engines to autopopulate pages formerly generated by humans. Many categories in the browsing hierarchy are now replaced by search results pages with keywords prepopulated.

Missing in this "I've been dumped at a search results page" experience, however, is your brand and voice. We always complain that e-commerce is a commodity, and price trackers have made it a war on prices. If your Web site is merely a search engine with a product listing, the complaint is valid.

If you want a differentiator that makes your brand and site stick out, your site must be more than a search engine for your products. Whether it's your company's expertise or the way you explain difficult concepts in a language your audience can understand, there has to a differentiator that makes users want to use your company.

The convergence of searching and browsing isn't a bad thing. But a real convergence doesn't mean replacing one with the other. Removing editorial pages and dumping the user on a search results page isn't convergence. Neither is taking the user from the search engine directly to a browse page.

Create pages to incorporate the functionalities from both worlds to get true convergence. A category page with editorial content, subcategories, and mechanisms to search and filter products within that page comes close to convergence. A search results page must be more than a list of products. It must be a fully merchandised (automated) page including articles, how-to sections, FAQs, categories, promotions, and products. That's great convergence.

My last column discussed what should be on a search results page when no results are found. When results are found, the search results page should become a personalized home page based on the keywords entered. It can become a storefront geared toward the products and services your company has to offer. It can include the specific things the user was looking for, as well as links to other site places. It can be designed to look like a real page on your site, not just the output of some search engine.

We're working with a lot of companies right now on various ways to integrate searching and browsing. Some ideas work amazingly well, some don't. Moreover, some ideas that work well in one environment don't work at all in another. This is because different industries and different types of products and services naturally attract different types of people.

While we can still categorize people as searchers or browsers, the world is grayer than that, especially where long-term loyalty is involved. Searchers can be inherently less loyal if all they see is a search results page like that of your competition. Your site experience is no different than your competitor's.

Testing convergence ideas must be performed over time. While it's somewhat straightforward to test a single idea, such as whether a robust search page for the term "rings" converts more or less than simply transferring those people to the rings category, that isn't enough. The real question is what makes these people more profitable and loyal in the long run.

Suppose dumping people at a search results page instead of a subcategory page results in higher sales. That's great, unless you rob the user of your brand experience, and they never return because they don't remember which site they used. Testing must track these users over time, past the first transaction.

True convergence, however, mitigates these issues by creating rich user experiences and a direct route to products while providing the branding, voice, and expertise to encourage them to return.

This column presents more questions than answers, but I hope it gets you thinking about not just replacing browsing with searching (or vice versa), but really creating a new user experience that converges these worlds into something greater than either of them.

Thoughts, comments? Let me know.

Until next time...


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Jack Aaronson

Jack Aaronson, CEO of The Aaronson Group and corporate lecturer, is a sought-after expert on enhanced user experiences, customer conversion, retention, and loyalty. If only a small percentage of people who arrive at your home page transact with your company (and even fewer return to transact again), Jack and his company can help. He also publishes a newsletter about multichannel marketing, personalization, user experience, and other related issues. He has keynoted most major marketing conferences around the world and regularly speaks at and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile.

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