Your Online Sales Adviser: Finding your perfect guitar in a catalogue of thousands

Andertons Music
8 min readDec 11, 2015

On, you can currently choose from 2130 Electric Guitars.

That’s a lot of strings! But does your perfect guitar have 6, 7, 8 or 9?! What about colour? For a long time, helping our online browsers narrow down the search for their perfect guitar was a challenge.

In our store, our guitar experts are easily able to guide people to the best instruments, based upon their needs. Online — of course you can drop us an email, or phone for help — but what if you just want to browse the website and find your dream instrument from the comfort of your own home?

Our users conduct 7000 keyword searches using our website search engine every day, so this is a something worth getting right! We partnered with search specialists, EasyAsk to tackle some of the more difficult challenges of guiding online browsers to their perfect product.

Here are a few of the ways EasyAsk’s clever search technology helps Andertons’ users to have a great browsing experience online.

Designed for Humans

To satisfy customers, we believe our website ought to behave like one of our in-store salespeople, interpreting questions and providing verbose, expert answers. Mindful of this, we ensure our content team impart their knowledge and passion into their writing when creating webpages for new products.

We reckon we spend a little longer than your average printer ink copywriter (teehee) creating product content. In fact, it takes a member of our team 30 minutes to list an item on our website. This is actually 4 minutes longer than it was eighteen months ago, but we don’t consider that to be a bad thing.

A slide from 2014 designed to make these stats seem exciting to senior management.

To connect customers’ questions with our rather excellent, answer-providing content, we need a search engine. That’s the complicated, ugly robot thing that stands in the middle of what should be a very human interaction! In our case, its name is EasyAsk. Luckily for us, what EasyAsk lacks in personality, it makes up for in SUPER AMAZING ALGORITHMS.

EasyAsk is a language-driven engine; it understands what our users type. That’s more than just matching keywords with data strings; it contains a dictionary which holds word and phrase definitions so that it can interpret queries containing keywords, natural language and industry specific terms (which are rife in the musical world as I’m sure you can fathom!)

If you type:

white fender telecasters between £400 and £600

You get these items as a result (which I think isn’t bad!):

EasyAsk hasn’t treated the price element of the query as keywords like a simple algorithm might, but rather as a budget that the user has specified.

There are also music industry-specific customisations to the dictionary. For nerds like me who are into guitars like the Ibanez SA1060WZC-NTF, EasyAsk needs to understand how customers think about model numbers.

It’s not uncommon for us to see users search for a partial model number in this case. They might type “SA1060” if they want to see all Ibanez SA1060 guitars regardless of colour, or “SA1060 NTF” if they know which finish they want (NTF means “Natural Flat” in this case).

Some search engines would need a user to type out the whole lot — SA1060WZC-NTF — or it wouldn’t match. We told EasyAsk how our users think about model names, and they responded by exploding our SKU field into many parts so that any relevant partial (or combination thereof) can be matched to the right product.

SA1060WZC-NTF matches on SA, 1060, WZC, NTF, SA1060, SA1060WZC, SA1060WZCNTF, 1060WZC, 1060WZCNTF, 1060WZCNTF, WZCNTF

And as you can see, this sorts our user out nicely:

Colourful Language: Refining results with advanced search filters

Have you ever seen that Autotrader advert where the lady is swishing her finger around on an iPad and the cars she’s not interested in start veering off the road? Hold on, I’ll show you the one I mean…

Well, frankly that’s awfully dangerous and I would never condone giving users the power to send 2 tonne cars careering in any which direction…

But fundamentally, Autotrader have the right idea: Put the power to refine product results down to the most relevant items, at the users’ fingertips. We refer to this as filtering, and we offer a wide selection of ever-changing filter options that allow our users to sculpt & chisel product results until they see only items that fit their criteria.

You might think that somewhere in the background we have a ton of checkboxes that we can tick on each product for things like “Colour”, “Number of Strings” or “Size”, and that every time we need a new attribute we add more data [MOOAAR DATA] via a new checkbox or dropdown in our content management system.

Nope, we’re way too lazy for that.

We found that asking copywriters to spend half their time box-ticking really takes away from the human element of writing up a product online. As described earlier, the last thing we want is for them to lose their passion.

What’s more, we simply don’t have a database of “colours” (or anything else) for our 12,000 existing products, so creating one would be... kinda boring.

Of course, instrument manufacturers and marketers really don’t care about my problems; they thoughtlessly cast their products with colour names like “Reindeer Blue” meaning “It’s actually purpleand “Blue Metal” when they should have said “Grey metal… Er oh actually, I guess it’s just metal.

So how do we make sure that when you search for “Red Guitar” you get all the guitars in our catalogue that are visibly red, without missing stuff that a user would see as red, but a marketer decided to call “brimstone cherry”?

Some of the things in the groovily-named ‘search filtration sidebar’.

Oh, hi EasyAsk!

EasyAsk allows us to define advanced searches then link them to a single checkbox in our search results filtration sidebar.

For the “colour” checkboxes, our team defined sixteen colour keywords as advanced searches.

It took a couple of afternoons head-scratching, combing through manufacturer price lists & catalogues, and cross-referencing the Dulux colour chart (other paint brands are available), but by the end we felt pretty confident that we had accurately defined colours for the majority of the catalogue.

Here’s the advanced search that is hidden behind the checkbox for the colour “Red”.

(category path contains ‘electric guitars’ or ‘acoustic guitars’ or ‘bass guitars’ or ‘electric guitar amps’ or ‘guitar straps’ or ‘acoustic drums’ or ‘stage pianos’ or ‘home keyboards’ or ‘clearance’) AND (Product Name contains ‘red’ or ‘cherry’ or ‘crimson’ or ‘ruby’ or ‘candy’ or ‘cola’ or ‘wine’ or ‘brimstone’ or ‘merlot’ or ‘blood’ or ‘fireglo’ or ‘fireglow’ or ‘vermillion’ not ‘blue’ or ‘black’ or ‘*burst’ or ‘washed cherry’ or ‘heritage cherry’)

You’ll notice some ‘not’ keywords in there meaning anything with that word in its title won’t be shown to the user. If you’re wondering why ‘blue’ is in the not-list for ‘red’, it will be because someone has called their product ‘candy apple blue’ or ‘blood blue’ or something like that. The first part of the definition thinks ‘blood blue’ = ‘red’, then the second part said ♪ no no no ♪.

Amy Winehouse joke there.

Oh and just for fun, it gets a bit more complicated when it comes to defining “Natural” as a colour, but it’s still perfectly do-able!

Basically, when it comes to acoustic guitars, we might not put “in Natural” into the product names, but if it has a colour finish, we would say “in Black”. Therefore anything that doesn’t fall into any specific colour definition is almost certainly “natural”.

And Finally… Search FAST

You might be able to see that a complex search like the one above for “Natural” would take a while to compute.

It is really important that users get search results fast. We know this from Jakob Nielsen research which is as old as web team member, Ben Greener.

Hi Ben. You’re younger than everyone and you never forget to remind us.

One of the clever things about EasyAsk is that it doesn’t do that complex search for “Natural” on the fly. Instead it builds an index of definitions and computes the search results at build time. At runtime it only has to query the results associated with the single-word pre-definition.

Or in other words: “Natural” maps to “Product IDs: 123, 234, 345” etc.

This makes EasyAsk crazy fast. When a user ticks the box for “natural”, his or her web browser sends a request from wherever in the world it is to EasyAsk in America. Typically within less than 50ms, EasyAsk has sent back a list of ID numbers, which the Andertons website turns into product tiles.

Any slowdown here is almost always the network conditions, or the Andertons server’s ability process the data. If it were a relay race, EasyAsk would be Usain Bolt, and Andertons would be, well… me... I’m a terrible sprinter.

Coming up next month: Search Laboratory!

So that concludes a brief look at the technology behind finding the perfect guitar on Andertons’ website! However when it comes to search there is much more that we are doing behind the scenes to optimise your experience.

On our site, someone clicks a filter to narrow down their search once every 3.5 seconds

…and, on average, users click ten subsequent refinement criteria when they are looking at a search results or category page. Users really want to get to that perfect product, fast — so we need to make sure we give them all the help we can.

How do we make sure we’re helping you and not hindering you as you narrow down your search? I’ll tell you next time!

Read part 2 now here: Search Laboratory, Rock ‘n’ Roll Lab Rats

Do you have any suggestions to improve our search engine? Want more from Behind the Scenes at Andertons? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Andertons Music Co. Is a UK based, rock ’n’ roll music instrument retailer which has served the community for over 50 years. The brand is known by musicians worldwide, with videos by Chappers & The Captain reaching nearly half a million YouTube subscribers.

About the AuthorAndrew Chart heads up the E-Commerce technical team at Andertons. He expertly avoids any and all box-ticking activities at work, and has frequently been compared to Harry Potter, both for his 'dark-hair-and-glasses' aesthetic, and his safety research work in the field of "magic finger-swiping to send physical objects flying everywhere".