Search Versus Categories

Nearly every American with internet access has made an online purchase at some point in the past year, more than three-quarters made an online purchase in the past month, and almost one-third shop online at least once per week. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that eCommerce sales are still growing at more than 20 percent per year and capturing market share from brick-and-mortar retailers.

Despite a growing number of shoppers and online spending, eCommerce businesses know surprisingly little about how their customers shop. Sure, they may know what products are popular, but most don’t know how customers reach those products. For example, how many customers use site search to find products versus browsing product categories? How many pages deep does the average site search user dive into search results?

eCommerce store owners know surprisingly little about how their customers shop.

Questions like these are important to answer because they’re key to optimizing both the shopping experience and the eCommerce store’s revenue and profitability.

Let’s take a closer look at how customers find products and how to leverage this information to boost your conversion rates.

What Conventional Wisdom Says

The success of Google and evidence that site search produces higher conversion rates has led analysts and UX designers to emphasize the importance of effective site search to an eCommerce website. Take a look at search results on optimizing your eCommerce website—more likely than not, any article you open will mention the critical role that site search plays in building an effective customer experience.

As a result, a proliferation of site search solutions has sprung up, with dozens of different products such as Solr, ElasticSearch, and SearchSpring available for businesses to choose from. For a company that’s just beginning to focus on their eCommerce presence, it’s easy to feel like site search is the first thing you should figure out.

And there’s good reason to pay attention to your site search experience. When Screen Pages analyzed their customers, they found that search users converted at 4.63% vs. the 2.77% site average, a 1.8x difference. WebLinc found a similar effect, showing that search users are 216% more likely to convert than regular users.

But does that mean you should drop everything and sink thousands of dollars into improving your site’s search engine? Let’s take a look at what the research says about traditional category-based navigation.

Why You Shouldn’t Overlook Traditional Navigation

While an investment in your site search is likely to pay off in the long run, it’s important to keep a sense of perspective and not overlook how vital traditional navigation is in building a successful customer experience.

According to Shopify, the number of customers using site search typically ranges from five to 10 percent of visitor, far less than the site search industry’s emphasis on their products might lead you to believe. While these statistics may vary based on many factors, such as whether you’re a B2C or B2B eCommerce business, there’s ample evidence that optimizing categories could be more important than optimizing site search.

Neil Patel, an online marketing expert, asked 100 people to describe their search behaviors when looking for specific products online. The responses showed that the majority (60 percent) of users prefer using an on-page navigation over the site search to find specific products. In addition, about half of the users preferred to narrow down their options using specific product details on the product page instead of using search.

Jared Spool of User Interface Engineer came to a similar conclusion after studying 30 users performing over 100 different shopping tasks. None of the participants used search as their first action all of the time when looking for product information. Rather, these users tended to use search engines when the on-page navigation didn’t satisfy their desire to find a product.

Michael Katz and Michael Byrne confirmed these findings in their research paper, “Effects of Scent and Breadth on Use of Site-Specific Search on E-Commerce Web Sites”. They found that participants searched less than ten percent of the time when given broad, high-scent (useful) on-site navigation menus. However, they searched nearly 40 percent of the time when faced with narrow, low-scent (less useful) menus.

Going Beyond the Research

Studies and surveys are great for gaining high-level insights, but the reality is that each eCommerce store is unique. Depending on your product mix, customers, and site design, the percentage of sales being driven by site search vs. categories can vary widely from one site to the next. The key is knowing where your store stands in order to focus on the right area.

When trying to figure out where you stand, there are two key questions to ask. First, who are your customers? And second, how complex is your catalog?

For example, if you’re a B2B retailer whose customers tend to visit your site to make consistent, repeat purchases of the same products, they may be more likely to use site search to quickly navigate to the exact product they wish purchase. On the other hand, if you’re a consumer-focused clothing retailer with a deep, constantly changing catalog, it is much more likely that your users will choose to spend time browsing your category pages.

To illustrate this point, we found significant differences in customer behavior when analyzing a few eCommerce stores using Avatria Convert. In some cases, site search was very prominent, and in other cases, categories were moreso. Again, it depended largely on the eCommerce store’s target market and product mix.

Here are three eCommerce stores across different verticals that illustrate these differences:

Adult Products Retailer

February 3, 2017 – August 11, 2018

Percentage of Product Detail Views Percentage of Total Purchases
Search 12.3 15.8
Non-Search 87.7 84.2

The adult product retailer saw a relatively high percentage of visitors leverage the site search to find products, with an improved conversion rate for those users.

Clothing Retailer

June 14, 2017 – August 11, 2018

Percentage of Product Detail Views Percentage of Total Purchases
Search 5.1 6.0
Non-Search 94.9 94.0

The clothing retailer had a far lesser percentage of visitors leveraging site search, with a marginal difference in conversion.

Jewelry Retailer

December 20, 2017 – August 11, 2018

Percentage of Product Detail Views Percentage of Total Purchases
Search 2.9 1.8
Non-Search 97.1 98.2

The jewelry retailer had very few visitors using site search and non-search browsing actually resulted in higher conversion rates, suggesting that their site search solution didn’t offer an effective customer experience.

These data points suggest that the search versus category optimization decision depends on your business. If you sell highly differentiated products, site search may offer the best experience to help customers find the products they want. If you sell very similar products, your visitors may prefer to use categories and filters to narrow down their choices when making a decision.

You should also consider how much you’ve already optimized search. If you’re already using an advanced search tool, then you might be approaching the limits of optimization, and category pages could make a better target for improvement.

How to Optimize the Customer Experience

We have built our product, Avatria Convert, around a simpler concept: Show customers the products that they want to buy, no matter how they choose to find it. Convert is able to optimize the customer experience for both site search and category browsing experiences.

Our machine learning model crunches customer data that you’re already collecting with Google Analytics Enhanced Ecommerce to help improve conversions rates by upwards of 40 percent.

While smart search engines include the most relevant products in a list of search results, we go a step further by factoring in past shopping behavior to prioritize the search results customers are most likely to buy.

On category pages, we’ll use that same data to help you figure out the optimal order to display products in every list. This assures that customers are more likely to find what they’re looking for, and less likely to get overwhelmed or frustrated by your site’s experience. You can even apply Convert to related product lists, helping you optimize conversion at every step of the customer journey.

Best of all, our model continues to improve over time as more data is collected. Avatria Convert seamlessly pulls in your Google Analytics data and supports multiple integration methods to load the recommended rankings into your eCommerce or search platform, no matter what technology you use.

Getting Started

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