What website search auto-complete and auto-suggest can do for your business

What website search auto-complete and auto-suggest can do for your business

Over the last few years, the accessibility and affordability of search auto-completion and auto-suggestion for websites has improved dramatically.

Once the domain of search giants like Google, Yahoo! and Bing only, smart online search and keyword auto-completion is now becoming more standard on websites, helping potential customers navigate and find what they need without leaving a business's site.

This is especially critical for e-commerce sites, many of which are seeing double-digit sales increases and large drops in customer service calls after implementing quality auto-complete on their sites.

Understanding how search auto-complete can improve your users' on-site experiences can directly lead to higher conversion rates and lower customer service costs. It will also help you make the best decision about whether, and how, to add this functionality to your website.

How on-site search works

There are three distinct functions in on-site search that are related to guessing what the customer may be interested in – auto complete, auto suggest, and auto correct.

  • Search auto-complete

    When someone begins typing into a search box, the application predicts what the user is searching for, either as one word or a phrase. In its simplest form, auto-complete finishes simple terms, such as an email address contained in the user's address book, but when used on website search, it can recognize product names, categories, product numbers, and other words and phrases relevant to the site's products, articles, or other content.

  • Search auto-suggest

    Auto-suggest provides relevant, helpful alternative or additional suggestions that may or may not be close to the query being searched by the user. There can be logic to suggest accessory products or other products normally purchased together with the searched item, for example.

  • Search auto-correct

    Finally, the auto-correct function provides the corrected spelling of a misspelled word.

  • On-site search technology basics

    Sophisticated search applications use algorithms to provide the most logical choices to finish the search. Using natural language processing and custom dictionaries, applications can store and recognize previous searches, search and rank data within your product databases, and weigh frequency (or recency) of searched phrases to supply the user with the most relevant suggested terms.

  • How search auto-complete came around

    Auto-complete technology was originally created to help people with physical disabilities spend less time typing by completing their words and phrases. Another application of early versions of this technology was to help medical transcriptionists, who entered the same words over and over while inputting information from doctor's charts and notes.

    Google implemented its auto-complete function in 2004, not as a way to speed up searches, but as a way to provide better results. Users looking for specific information did not always know the best buzzwords or industry phrases that would produce the best pages. They often made spelling errors, as well.

    Auto-complete's predictive search algorithms help guide users to what they're really looking for.

What are the benefits of search auto complete technology?

Auto-complete is more than just a convenience. More accurate search results lead to quicker navigation to what a user is seeking. Added to e-commerce websites, auto-complete gets users to the correct product page quicker, leading to more sales.

This is done through a number of means, which can include correcting spelling errors and "fuzzy matching" results. Fuzzy matching occurs when a user's query pulls up no results and the search bar provides alternate results likely to be helpful.

Serving e-commerce website visitors with a "results not found" message can lead to instant bouncing to another site.

Additionally, auto-complete results can provide multiple results, offering words and phrases (and products) similar to what the user is searching, rather than an exact match. This provides the user with alternatives they might not have considered, or might have an interest in.

For example, someone searching for "tennis shorts" might also see "tennis socks" and will be reminded she needs those, as well.

When site visitors can find what they need more efficiently, they are more likely to purchase online without calling a business, decreasing customer service costs.

When you make a sale and successfully complete the transaction, you generate trust with a shopper who is more likely to purchase from you in the future. Creating a helpful user experience that results in a successful transaction gives you an edge over your competitors.

Conversely, your competitors who make shopping easier (even if the products and cost are the same or very similar) will have an advantage over you. It only takes one positive transaction with your competitor to make one of your regular customers stick with the new seller.

Is smart auto-complete for on-site search affordable?

Turnkey, add-on auto-complete solutions for websites are increasingly available and are cheaper than asking your IT team to develop a proprietary application for your website.

However, what you save in off-the-shelf auto-complete programs might cost you in the long run. If you can't get quick and ongoing customer support from your provider, you might lose sales as your search needs evolve.

This means finding a provider that not only understands search auto-complete technology, but also how your entire system operates. For that, you should look for a provider that can help customize your auto-complete functionality based on what you learn reviewing your search logs.

Using an IT solutions provider with broad knowledge of e-commerce is often affordable and will pay for itself in increased sales and reduced customer service calls and emails.

Can you implement smart on-site search and auto-complete yourself?

More and more providers are offering auto-complete functionality for websites, which can be as simple as adding a widget to your site, or more complicated as you personalize the functionality for your site.

Most small and medium-sized businesses, even those with experienced IT teams, might struggle trying to create in-house auto-complete apps or attempting to use turnkey solutions. "This is because the majority of common ecommerce systems use relational databases, and, naturally, developers try to add autocomplete functionality on top of existing database structure. Unfortunately, relational databases aren't well suited for this sort of task and, in most cases, one has to sacrifice quality of suggestions for speed, or speed for quality – you cannot get both," according to Steersman CTO Art Shipulin.

"If your system isn't configured correctly, it will also return irrelevant data," says Shipulin. "For example, if you have B2B customers frequently searching for product numbers, you want your suggestions to be product numbers, not words, or at least give part numbers more weight in the search algorithms. With the Steersman system, we can customize that for you."

Below are some things to look into prior to starting your project:

  • Ask your IT director how expert they are with website search auto-completion. They might be familiar with it and able to make it work on your site. Confirm that and ensure that your IT staff keep it up to date and growing with your company.
  • The quicker the words populate an auto-complete search box, the more likely a user will click on your suggestion. Therefore, you'll want to work with an IT solutions provider that offers a solution with high search bar population speeds.
  • You will also want to ask your potential provider what happens when users spell a word incorrectly. The application should provide "fuzzy" suggestions that are close to what the user is searching, and probably what she intended.

What's in the future for on-site search auto complete technology?

As website auto search auto-completion evolves, the function will become more personal. For example, when a user logs in to your site or is recognized by an IP address, the user's history will guide the search application toward more relevant results, based on the user's past search and purchase history.

As the back ends of applications continue to improve, more accurate alternative or additional suggestions will be offered, helping to increase sales and user experience on e-commerce sites.

Additional information to consider when deciding on ecommerce systems

Is Steersman the right smart search solution for you?

A most viable solution for most businesses wishing to implement auto search completion and high performance smart search on their websites is to hire an IT solutions provider with expertise not only in this specific area, but that also has broader IT solutions skill sets.

Steersman, is expert in databases, business systems, ecommerce infrastructure, and smart search functionality, offering a total IT solutions system, including an advanced ecommerce platform that is built into its full suite. And while Steersman is there to support you whenever you need assistance, we also train your IT and marketing staff to become expert users of our technology, making tweaks and upgrades quicker for you.

— by Steve Milano, in collaboration with Art Shipulin, CTO at Steersman

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