Staples switches Web search tools

After a flurry of comments from customers saying it was hard to find products on Staples Inc.’s Web site, the office supplies retailer decided its homegrown search engine needed to go. In its place Staples implemented self-service search and navigation software from iPhrase Technologies Inc.

The company’s original search technology wasn’t delivering the results that customers wanted, says Tom House, senior project manager at Staples in Framingham, Mass. “Our customers did not find our existing search engine and our search interface easy to use,” House says. “They didn’t feel that the results they were getting back were relevant to the search terms they entered.”

As a result, people were abandoning Staples’ consumer and small-business Web site when their searches yielded poor results, instead of sticking around to buy items. According to Web logs, the “search results” page was where Staples lost the most visitors to its site, House says.

Poor site search is a common problem, according to Jupiter Research. The firm estimates that Web-wide search tools, such as Google, outperform local Web site search tools 52 per cent of the time. Among 1,482 users Jupiter surveyed, 45 per cent reported that with most companies’ keyword-based search features, it’s too time-consuming to page through results; 39 per cent said misspellings are poorly handled; and 38 per cent said search results typically are not relevant.

To combat these issues, iPhrase – along with competitors such as Applied Semantics, Ask Jeeves and Primus Knowledge Solutions – uses natural-language-processing technology that interprets the meaning of a customer’s request, phrased in everyday language, and retrieves the most pertinent information. IPhrase’s One Step software automatically adjusts to handle misspellings, synonyms and abbreviations, the vendor says.

One Step also can weed through structured and unstructured data. Initially, Staples is most interested in the software’s structured data-search capabilities, because the Web site’s primary content source is Staples’ 40,000-item product catalogue, House says.

Eventually the retailer plans to expand its search features to include unstructured data, such as its online help resources, House says. The retailer also might roll out the iPhrase software to its other Web properties, such as the Web site of its Quill Corp., subsidiary.

Staples started evaluating search vendors last year after feedback from e-commerce research site indicated customers were unhappy with its Web site search capabilities. Roughly 30 per cent of the comments Staples received from BizRate were about its search engine – which hadn’t been updated since Staples built it five years ago, House says. “It was in real dire need of an update, as our customers told us pretty loud and clear,” he says.

After evaluating a dozen vendors and short-listing three for on-site pilots, Staples chose iPhrase. Staples went live with the vendor’s One Step software in February. It’s too early to tell if the new software will increase Staples’ online sales, House says. But the revamped search features have yielded positive reviews from users, and Staples’ customer service representatives are logging fewer phone calls from people having Web site search problems, he says.

Staples’ sales and marketing associates also are benefiting from the new software, which allows them to track visitors’ search patterns and modify search engine parameters as needed, House says. “If we see customers enter a search term that the iPhrase engine by default is not catching as a misspelling, we allow our internal associates to configure the search engine to capture that misspelling and correct it on the fly,” he says.

With the old software, Staples associates could see problems customers were having with the search engine, but weren’t able to tweak the search engine to correct the problems.