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Why every store needs search: A Q&A with the founder of InstantSearch+

Why every store needs search: A Q&A with the founder of InstantSearch+

As ecommerce designers, we talk a lot about the importance of navigation and organization. On a platform like Shopify, it’s critical that merchants arrange their collections in a way that’s clear and accessible to customers. But one piece of functionality that sometimes gets overlooked is a simple tool we use every day: the search box.

InstantSearch+ is one of the most popular and well-reviewed search apps on Shopify. It aims to replicate the most advanced, “Amazon-like” search technology and offer it to merchants at an affordable price. Its founders pride themselves on the app’s lightning-fast installation, which requires no coding, integration or maintenance by the merchant.

“Typically when you look at high-end search apps and services, there’s a lot of setup work involved,” says Zohar Gilad, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “Our product is designed to be totally self-service. You just add it to your store and it starts working.”

Along with search functionality, InstantSearch+ offers merchandising opportunities and product recommendations. Zohar joined us for a chat about the importance of search, how ecommerce merchants can incorporate it into their stores, and his advice for online business owners.


In this advanced age of Google and Amazon, users have very high expectations when it comes to search. What does that mean for ecommerce merchants?

That's a great question. Users are conditioned by their experience on Google and Amazon to expect a few things. Number one is speed. They expect search to be fast. They also expect what’s called rich autocompletion. In Google, that means query autocompletion—a user starts typing and it tries to guess their question. In ecommerce, we can do even better. You can actually guess which product the person was going to look for, and you can offer it directly in the search dropdown. That means engaging with the shopper in milliseconds.

Our statistics show that if you look across thousands of stores and compare conversion rates between people who use search and people who don’t use search, people who use search are 4-5 times more likely to convert to a purchase. That is huge. It means your site search is probably your biggest conversion vehicle once you've got traffic onto your site.


What makes one search better than others?

There are basically two things that are important in search: speed and relevance. Your search has to be continuously learning. A good search app continuously learns what people are looking for and whether or not the results are relevant. In ecommerce, that means do they click on it? Do they purchase it? A good search app needs to always be gathering a huge amount of information, not only on the product but how people interact with the product.

For example, when we present a search results page for ecommerce, we monitor what people are clicking on. Optimally you would like everyone to click on the first product on the top left-hand side, because that was the highest probability. In the real world, they don't always do that, but when we present a search results page, I would say that more than 95% of clicks are going to be within the first 9-10 results, which means the results are highly relevant.


And the clicks that aren’t optimal—you’re continuously learning from those.

Exactly. If someone has to scroll two screens before they find what they’re looking for, that’s going to impact the next query. Let's say you’re shopping for swimming gear and you're looking for a blue bathing suit and you don’t find it until the second page. That means the next person with the same query is going to get it perhaps on the first page—we’re going to get your query into the equation and say, okay, let’s elevate this product’s ranking.


What are some of the ways big companies like Amazon are using search functionality to increase conversions and revenues? Can ecommerce merchants do the same?

One thing Amazon does all the time is merchandising. Merchandising is about displaying the product in a way that makes people want to buy. With search, let’s say I’m having a sale on bathing suits. If somebody is looking for just bathing suits, it’s okay for me to elevate my current promotion or latest product so that it appears first. Now, if the user chooses it, great. But if they say, well, I don’t want just any bathing suit, I want a Speedo bathing suit, then it’s not going to show up. This is the kind of smart promotion and merchandising that merchants can do behind the scenes.


If I were a small business owner and I installed this app, would I just expect that it would suddenly increase my conversions and revenue? Or are there other things I need to do in order to make that happen?

I would say the main thing is exactly what you said: it just starts working. That's the magic. This is why what we do is so good for small-to-medium-sized business owners—because they’re so strapped for time. They need something they can add without any development, because they can’t bear the cost or the time. They want it to just work.


Are there industries or verticals where a high-performing search is more important than others, or is it pretty flat across the board?

I would say that across the board it's highly important. Obviously the more products you have, the more it’s important. The more varieties of products you have, the more it’s important. The more shoppers you have who search by elements and filters, the more it’s important.

There are basically two modes of shoppers: the browsing mode and the searching or “intent” mode. And the bottom line is that people who came to search came to buy. The data is there—people who search are 4-5 times more likely to convert—so if your search experience is shitty, then you’ve just wasted a huge opportunity. That’s pretty much it.


Could you talk about about how InstantSearch+ does product recommendations? I'm assuming it incorporates search data into the recommendations…

Yes, exactly. Because we're using big data technology, we're capturing what people search, which products they view together, what they purchase together, what they do on the site. We have all this data, and therefore we’re able to offer recommendations based on what other people searched, viewed or bought together with this product. This is different than probably 90% of other product recommendation apps, which are typically configured manually, where you have to physically enter that “people who buy this product would buy this product,” and so on.


Do you have any must-have advice for ecommerce merchants?

Number one, I would say have a clear, visible search box. You’d be amazed at how many ecommerce sites don’t have a search box, or have it hidden for design considerations. The equivalent would be having a brick-and-mortar store with nobody to talk to. Can you imagine walking into a store to buy something, and there’s nobody to talk to? What would happen? You would walk away. There are so many ecommerce shops in this exact situation.

Number two, I would say time is money. This is true in search more than anything else. Make sure your search is fast. At the end of the day, people are conditioned by Amazon and by Google, and they expect your shop to do the same.

Number three, I'd say leverage your search and product recommendations as an engaging merchandising vehicle. When you have autocompletion in your search—rich autocompletion with images of products that users may have an intent to buy—that increases the trust of the user, because you know what they’re looking for and can get it to them right away. It increases their confidence in your ability to serve them, and it delivers the goods. Also, when your users get to the search results page, make sure you have the right filters to help them narrow down the options to the product they actually want. And of course, make sure your search is relevant. Many searches get you the wrong results.

Merchants need to think about search not as a design element, but as a huge merchandising and conversion vehicle—probably the best and most impactful tool on their site.


Have you seen any ecommerce trends emerging over the first half of 2016?

I would say the biggest thing is the continued domination of mobile. In 2015, I think about 30% of searches were coming from mobile, at least on the sites we looked at. In 2016, it's north of 50%. I'm not talking about whether they actually bought the product on mobile, but they at least searched for it there. So here's some more advice for merchants: don't think of mobile as an afterthought. Really, it should be the first thing you think about.

One example of that would be communication with customers. After a customer has bought something, you might send them an email saying their product has been purchased, processed, and oh, by the way, here are some other products you may want to think about. I think that the majority, probably close to 100% of these emails are opened on mobile. So whenever you design a message intended for email, you first need to think of mobile.

Head over InstantSearch+'s website to learn more about the product.

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