How eCommerce search has evolved with our changing behaviour online

Search tools have become the favourite way for most customers to find products in an online store. Where, when, and how that tool is accessed and interacted with now determines whether or not a user will stay in a particular eCommerce portal.

At EmpathyBroker, we’ve been helping people find what they’re looking for for many years. Throughout that time, one of the most important things needed for delivering a better search experience has always been optimising your catalogue’s contents for search. However, the way in which customers use search is changing, and with that come many more things that you need to keep in mind.

Image by Geralt on

From the desire for user-tailored results, to the growing preference for mobile browsing, to the increasing demand for image and voice search, the act of discovering products in an online store continues to transform. If we are to keep up with our clients’ customers’ behaviours, it is essential for us to always be updating how we do things. We’re already looking ahead to what changes this year will bring. You can read about a few of our predictions in this article by our founder, Angel Maldonado:

In response to these predictions, I wanted to look back and highlight three important milestones from the world of eCommerce search that we shouldn’t lose sight of as we dive into the future.

Search as a source of inspiration

A potential customer doesn’t have to have a clear idea of what they want in order to access a search engine. Sometimes, the only thing a user is after is inspiration. Even those who know exactly what they are looking for, on occasion, will happily be distracted by a suggestion they didn’t expect. Thanks to mobile technology, we’ve gotten used to being given ideas and suggestions for any topic, at any time, in any place — eCommerce is no different.

Discovery walls, related tags, suggested queries, elements such as these have become more prominent in recent years. Search these days is less frequently a linear journey with a clearly defined endpoint. It’s an experience that’s centred on discovery, like a conversation (as we will discuss). A powerful search engine with the ability to predict user behaviour, to adapt on-the-fly to changing tastes and needs, and to inspire is essential.

Search as a shop assistant

Not long ago, customers interacted with search engines using nothing but commands, for example “red shirt size 10”. In recent years, searches have taken a slightly different direction. Queries are less instructional and have instead acquired an almost conversational tone, for example “red shirts for children”. The change is subtle, but important. It marks a shift in the way users perceive the interaction — less mechanical, more ‘human’.

That’s not to say your goal should be to try to mimic human interaction exactly or to trick your users into thinking they are interacting with a person. Instead, you should try to learn from the things that makes those human interactions more meaningful. The next step is to embrace how your technology can approach these same things from a different angle.

Take image search, for example. The growing demand for it can be attributed to the same shift in perception. It’s an interaction based on the sharing of complex information, needing to be intelligently interpreted and understood. That’s not a command based interaction. It’s something more closely resembling a dialogue between a customer and a shop assistant, even if words aren’t being used to communicate.

We’ve developed our own image search technology. In doing so, we’ve found that giving a search engine ‘eyes’, by combining image recognition with text and behavioural algorithms, has other advantages too. It not only helps you create unique search experiences for your customers, it also helps you save time and money by automating highly-manual and labor-intensive product description and tagging tasks.

Search as a way to get what we want when we want it

Immediacy is a key focus for retailers today. Users are used to getting what they want and getting it straight away. If they’ve searched for a product and found something they want to buy, they’ll want to buy it there and then.

You should be doing all you can to avoid offering a client search results for products that are not available. Doing so is arguably worse than providing them with no results at all. Imagine the following…

I start to search in an online store looking for sneakers. I spend some time applying different filters and sorting methods. I browse through the results until I finally find THE PRODUCT that I want. I immediately click on ‘Buy’. A message pops up telling me that my size is no longer available.

Even if you try to be cute and add a nice sad face emoji to soften the blow, I’ll be less likely to visit that website again. Don’t toy with your user’s emotions. Give them what they want, and if you can’t, offer them alternatives instead of a :(

In summary

Search will continue to play a main role in the way consumers discover and acquire products. We must always be aware of the changes and trends in this fast-moving sector. Missing the train now only means you’ll have to work twice as hard to catch up in the future.

These days, although it may seem like technology and behaviours are changing on a daily basis, don’t fear these changes. Embrace them, evolve with them, and reap the rewards. If you’d like to pick our brains about adapting to these and future changes in the way your customers search, drop us a line. We’d be happy to help.

GIFs in this post were retrieved from Giphy.