Friday, July 30, 2004

Blogging and Ecommerce....

One of the things I have been researching, while on the job hunt, is the profitability trends and technologies for blogging.

It seems there are room for growth in profitability, such as the major recommendation of putting Google AdSense on your blog. But that seemed to be lackluster, not quite enough.

For starters, there are major technical limitations to a blog, especially if you have one of the free ones, no coldfusion, asp, php, jsp or .net support, just straight html,css and javascript.

But it seems empty that there are no tools or means to integrate a shopping cart, or to browse the categories of recommended products.

There simply is no data connection, or way to integrate some higher technology, unless you try to do javascript converted content, but that doesn't always reach all your customers.

I for example, use blogger/blogspot because it is free. But that is also gives me a set of possible Blogger Tags to add functionality to my blog.

Ecommerce sounds so many times, like a magic wand of big cash flowing in, but it isn't. It's a process of merely trading products/services for money that could be used to buy other products/services.

We could try to implement XML Databinding to allow browsing of categories of products, but that is only supported in IE, and has issues with the data being from a different domain as the site being displayed at.

In addition, bloggers can't create seperate blank pages, that you can do programming on. You just write a blog, edit the template, and that's about it.

You could deliver content in javascript via coldfusion, put together a database of products, and then deliver the content as needed to help visitors browse? But how do you get them to browse, there is no seperate browsing page. Do you do a popup? No, people find them annoying.

So there you have this driving need to make more money with your blog, but the technology and usability limits are very tough to break...

Do we need a new standard of blogging? To add more functionality?

After all if blogs make money, maybe as more than just an affiliate, think of how that will grow the blogging industry, if people can sell securely their products.

Or even if you are just an amazon affiliate, if you can organize all your recommended books/products whatever into a browseable categories?

I think it's time for some innovation...

What do you think?

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Must have site search features

After reading the latest news from InternetRetailer, about how Tower Records increased conversion rates by changing site search, from Endecca to Mercado Software. I had to see it for myself.

I had to see if the relevence was good, the interface was clean, to see if it could find what I was looking for.

Now I may not be a big music hound, but I did remember April Lavigne.

Now it occured to me, that most recent search software should have spelling correction, right? Wrong!

I typed in Lavine, thinking, okay this new search would be able to recognize my miss-spelling and find April Lavigne, well I was wrong.

This led me to think, not so much to blame a particulare site search software, but to identify what kind of features does a site search really need?

1. It needs to know how to interpret search query requests to bring the relevent results.
2. Then it needs to provide an interface to search/browse/sort thru those results

Sounds simple right?

Well let's for example show you what it took Celebros, a very nice site search company from Israel, to create spelling corrections.

Basically they had to go thru every piece of data, every title, category, to hopefully provide clue that if a customer typed x they really meant y.

That took days and weeks to come up with spelling corrections, related searches, categorization etc...

But it still failed thru no fault of their own.

It's a failure of an assumption, that the customers really know the product data, or that they can easily figure out what to say to get what results they want....

Before you can create an efficient and profitable site search, you have to understand the customer, not the client, but the people who are going to query your site search....

Most customers tend to divide into three or more searching categories:

1. Looking for something specific
2. Just browsing, surfing
3. Researching to Buy

Each has different needs, and you have to create a solution that meets all their needs.

Then you need to realize you can create your own cheaper solution using whatever database you have. Whether it be SQL Server 2000's Full-Text Searching, Verity, Oracle SQL Statements.

The key is how to create good experiences when you fail to deliver relevent results, I mean, they may be relevent to the people who work at your company, but not to the customer.

So then there is two approachs, do you spend lots of time or money trying to create a data set, that will fix any search queries?

Or do you try your best, then watch the Conversion Rates, and hope things grow....

At first any new search solution for your site, will show improvements, especially if it's an experience change...

I mean, people can adapt to the worst site search, and even being offered two choices will choose the old one, just because they are more used to it.

So my theory is that you need an adaptive/learning site search, that immediately gives a good experience to the customer, as much as possible, such as offerng a discount/promotion for failing to get good search results or even a live chat link to help not lose this customer, and make sure they can find what they are looking for....

Then you need to get feedback from customer and from your site search programming to identify what types of search failures are occuring, and then to inform your site search/merchandising team to tweak the site search data, to provide the correct results, for the search query the customer used...

Then over time, you'll have a more liquid and more human site search...

It's either that or calling the boy scout to go visit the customer and bring them across the street to your store?


Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Learning Site Search

One of my covert projects I was working on, was a Learning Site Search. The concept being that to help the search engine learn as it goes, rather than trying to force it to have all the answers at first.

Let's face it, most site searches are not going to be perfect. They can get somewhat close, but only after months of working on the data, and still it will have problems.

1. To create a good site search, you have to know what the customers want, and how they'll phrase their searches
2. You have to know how to identify when the customer is not getting the results they want.

I wanted this site search, to have some unusual features, that helped it be more usable and better marketing.

First the site search would be based on SQL Server 2000's Full-Text Indexing, which I was very comfortable with.

Then there would be the toolbars/configuration of that search to help a customer modify the search, such as going from page to page, highlighting keywords, etc.

Now my first objective, was to relevancy, I had decided, that after looking at the research on site search usability, that most customers' really do not look past the 2nd page. I mean how many of us have that much time to waste, looking for something that's hard to find or isn't organized well?

Then I decided to have 20 results per page, so that no matter what search result, the focus of the merchandising team was on helping to make those two pages the most relevant of results.

After having worked with other search firms, such as Celebros, for which they have some very nice features, such as spell replacement. I wanted to add that feature to this search, but considering that with a product line of 38400, it would be pretty hard to pre-determine all spelling corrections, synonyms, etc.

So this is the backbone of the Learning Site Search, the need for two forms of feedback. One set of feedback has to be from the customers, to help identify keywords that don't get proper results. Then the second has to be from internal programming identifying when we get too many results, or irrelevant results.

So we now have a site search that after being notified either by customer or internal programming when a keyword is returning bad results. Then there has to be a way to configure or customize the results.

I created several different tables.

Synonyms - What if this keyword in a different way of saying it, gets the better results, so show the original word, but use this substitute to get the better results.
Spelling - To show the original word, and use the correction to substitute it.
Rank Drop Off - This is a new feature, I remember reading where after rank % between each record gets too high, it just becomes too irrelevant. So that for example for x keyword, any result below 30% was of no value,then we could stop showing results 30% or below. It makes it easier to have us show only the most RELEVANT results.
Rank Multipliers - I am searching thru 2 different tables in a total of 3 different ways, so to provide another way to customize results, we can dynamically change the priority of which table, which method via these dynamic rank multipliers.
Keyword Status - To help identify which keywords have which problems, including a space for comments by Merchandising Team.

Now Full-Text Indexing has a built-in rank counting field, to determine the density of a keyword in certain fields, and in addition I was searching 3 different methods. What I needed next was to convert to a percentage mode of ranking.

So after complex querying, I grabbed the top ranking result item, and then divided, following results by that, giving me a 100-0% results in percentage. Which then prepares for my rank drop off needs.

Now back to feedback methods, we did not want to ask for comments for customers, but just to click on 1-4 links to help us identify if this result was incorrect in any way...

Now all that's setup, then it's just a matter of testing it, against your previous search.

Now this will grow in data, as it gets customized. But remember, this will learn, and grow, and require less effort over time.

Good luck...

P.S. As you may know, I am currently looking for work, I would love to be able to help you with your site search, to be more profitable and to be more relevant. Being a coder does not prevent you from identifying with your customers.