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Intelligent Search: What Google’s New “Semantic Search” Means for Search on your e-Commerce Site

BY EasyAsk CEO Craig Bassin

Google has recently announced that it is adding more “semantic search” techniques into its otherwise largely keyword search. This means matching on the meaning of words, rather than just the occurrence of words. Since nearly all of your customers also use Google, their expectations for search are conditioned by Google. Over time, there is a trickle-down in the expectation that shoppers have of search, based largely on their experience on Google.

Therefore, it’s a reasonable question to ask: “What changes should I make in search at my commerce site to keep pace with customer expectations?” Beyond keeping pace with expectations, there is another even more important reason to invest in semantic search on your site — increased conversion rate. Analysis of Neilsen netRatings conversion rate studies across similar e-commerce sites has not only confirmed the impact of natural language semantic search, it has actually measured it!

What is Semantic Search?
The literal definition of semantic search is searching on meaning rather than searching on words. Google is now knocking at the door of semantic search by associating word groups as concepts. If some people search on “beach sandals” and other people search on “beach flip-flops”, while both groups click to show interest in the same item set, then the concept “sandal” and “flip-flop” may be related. The distillation of words into concepts is one part of the greater field of Natural Language Processing (NLP). Searching on concepts in their various forms delivers more complete results and is more tolerant of user search variations. As you have seen, semantic search is quite valuable – but there is more power available when you go deeper using more NLP techniques.

A semantic search with deeper NLP (let’s call this Natural Language Search, or NLS) support brings even more converting power to a commerce site. Lets look at these two commerce searches, “return policy” and “sweaters under $100”. Searching all your product descriptions for the words “return” and “policy” will clearly lead to ridiculous results. Clearly, the intent of this search is to display your policy on returns – treating this as a phrase and recognizing its special nature are important to the shopper, and easy with NLS.

Similarly, treating “under $100” as a keyword search will yield undesirable results. The intent of the user is to restrict the products based on price. Recognizing that “$100” is not a word, but rather a price requires something smarter than a keyword search. This occurs in other forms when the user wants to express a range restriction, not just on price, but any other numerical product attribute such as length, weight or wattage.

Units of measure commonly stump keyword search engines. For example, keyword searching for “12 volt 24 amp motor” will unfortunately return all motors with 12 or a 24 anywhere in the description. Thus, both 24 volt 12 amp motors as well as 24 watt .5 amp motors with a 12″ shaft will be shown! If your site gets lots of dimensional/size searches, the capabilities of NLS is absolutely critical. A semantic search with NLP is aware of units of measure, such as “volt”, “v” or “amp”, “A”. This unit of measure awareness automatically creates a phrase around “12 volt”, and to include searches on variations like “12V” or “12 V”. When a shopper searches for “Nike size 10”, NLS will recognize that “size” is an attribute with numeric values & therefore select the products with “size=10”. These capabilities impact countless unique searches that would otherwise stump almost all search engines.

These examples illustrate how easy it is for dumb keyword searches to yield embarrassing results. Have you ever searched a site only to see hundreds of irrelevant results? This not only reflects poorly on your brand, but can actually cause you to lose customers! Nearly all of us have had the experience of getting such poor results from a search on a commerce site. We get frustrated and leave the site altogether to buy from another site. This illustrates how improving search can improve conversion rate.

In order to measure the correlation between semantic search and conversion rate, we used Nielsen netRatings to compare the conversion rates of sites that were similar except for their use of semantic search. We compared sites for catalog companies and non-catalog companies separately. In both groups, the sites using semantic NLP search had about 20% higher conversion rate than the sites using keyword search. Of course, there are many other phenomena that impact conversion rate, but these would generally balance out across all the groups. Furthermore, the 20% improvement is consistent with the uplift we see when customers switch from keyword search to semantic search. Details of the Nielsen study are available on request.

Google is moving the world towards semantic search. Eventually user expectations will demand it from your commerce site as well. Switch sooner rather than later – you’re leaving money on the table every day until you make the switch!

Search and E-Commerce SEO
Benefits of Semantic Natural Language Search for E-Commerce
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