Adventures in Searchandising, Part 2

Last time, we discussed how merchandising strategies for brick-and-mortar retail stores don’t necessarily translate well for search engine referrals when incorporated into virtual, online retailer environments. We considered the concept of “searchandising,” whereby historical behavioral targeting and personalization tactics combine in an attempt to add relevancy to site searches while skewing and diluting the potential to add context to search engine referrals.

Toward this end, online retailers have embraced CMSs (define) that help refine site navigation within the context of the merchandise. Meanwhile, search engines have expanded their collection of contextual suggestions to help refine search queries. All these factors combine to change the way we searchandise e-commerce Web sites.

Today we’ll look at what happens when the major search engines meet guided navigation and extreme pagination. Let’s consider an average e-commerce site to understand what contributes to and what detracts from the context of the search.

In the good old days, site navigation was simple. There was a home page with a series of category pages. Sometimes these category pages were divided into subcategory pages that linked directly to product pages, otherwise this type of linkage occurred from the category pages. This means most static product pages were no more than three files away from the root domain and life was good. Except for the fact that such sites were nightmares to maintain and were often filled with broken links or, worse, out-of-stock merchandise.

Another common affliction was people couldn’t find the stuff they wanted to buy when they visited such uncomplicated, hierarchical e-commerce sites, even when a search engine told them the site had the goods they desired.

Online shoppers became frustrated, so they jumped into their gas-guzzling vehicles and cursed their way through holiday traffic to go buy little Timmy the gift he must have if he were to continue to believe in Santa Claus, stopping on the way home to make an act of contrition at their local house of worship for all profanities, of course. (That’s right, people, holiday mythology and the prospect of damnation have historically contributed to climate change. Toward this end, Google has saved us from increasing our collective holiday-shopping carbon footprint since 1996.)

Needless to say, simple hierarchical e-commerce sites went the way of the Dodo. To survive, e-commerce sites evolved to include intelligent guided navigation that helped users blaze a breadcrumb-reversible trail through their goods and services. Unfortunately, all the major search engines rely on nearly blind and relatively dumb spiders to crawl such sites’ content.

Let’s face it, the search engines have failed to make contextual rhyme or reason (or pattern matching, for that matter) of guided navigation. People, however, get it. The challenge is how to help the search engines do the same. As an example, we will walk through some guided navigation at an unnamed pet supply site. (By the way, unnamed site, it’s never a good idea to have an error page indexed. Doing so tends to keep dead pages alive in search engine indexes. Make that a hard 404 error and all will be well again…eventually.)

Consider whether users and search engines understand the context of the following navigational schemas:

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

With two references to “dog” and one reference to “puppy” (a phrase generally synonymous with young dogs) in the categorical ontological layer of dog supplies, users can readily make the connection between “dog toys” and the site’s content. Search engine spiders struggle to assume the same context. For all they know, “Clean Up/Stain & Odor” could be more relevant to laundry detergent or a crime scene than dog poop and puppy puddles.

Navigational searchandising is built on the premise that the deeper users go into the site, the more they understand about the contextual nature of the goods and services they seek. Search engine spiders get further lost in the shuffle of suboptimal words and phrases because they can’t assume the content’s context.

Users associate “dog beds” with different brands and styles, as needed for different dog breeds, in different shapes and sizes, and at different price points. Search engines fail to make the contextual connection without the use of “dog” in associated searches.

For example, one would not necessarily search for an “oval-shaped pet,” but one could search for an “oval-shaped dog bed.” Dog bed brand can certainly play a role in search, but not if the brand isn’t clearly associated with the product. “More” is a relatively useless link for search engine spiders to follow, but users find this type of link exceedingly useful. Price ranges play a role in search when comparison shopping, but research shows that price points in search queries are far more prominent when seeking escort services or pharmaceuticals, not necessarily dog beds.

The result of navigational searchandising is extreme pagination. That is to say, one singular database segment of dog beds is sliced and diced into 25-plus internal site search results that can be further fragmented by pagination schemas established to show a dozen or so items on each page. The result is site bloat, and search engine spiders hate a bloated site.

It takes longer to crawl a searchandise-bloated site, so crawl efficiency is dampened. Over time, spiders take smaller bites of the site each time they visit, so indexed pages become stale. Fusty pages get fewer click-throughs, reduced traffic inhibits link building and page popularity, and so the downward spiral of search engine invisibility begins — all because the site provides a great user experience.

What can an e-commerce site do to add context and meaning to navigational searchandising and avoid the affects of extreme pagination while delivering a superior user experience? We’ll talk about some options next time. Until then, happy holidays!

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