As the local e-commerce landscape becomes increasingly crowded, standing out becomes a never-ending challenge.

Although the term ‘conversion optimisation’ is frequently bandied around in the digital space, it can generate a significant increase to a business’ bottom line. However, this must be well executed with regard to diligent data analysis and a commitment to ongoing improvement of the customer experience.

Build it and they will come; optimise it and they will buy!
It’s no secret the priority of e-commerce website development is now the customer experience. Essentially, it is the customer experience that’s at the heart of conversion optimisation.

Based on a number of different activities, conversion optimisation is primarily about analysing and evaluating a website to see where improvements can be implemented to streamline the user experience, identify specific visitor trends and segments and gain an in-depth understanding of where a site is succeeding or failing in terms of traffic and activity.

As pointed out in Forrester Research’s 2011 report, The Future Of Interactive Marketing, retailers should “treat optimisation as a discipline, not a technology.” While there is no doubt the correct utilisation of search engine optimisation (SEO) and social media integration is vital to e-commerce success, it’s time retailers focused their attention on the practices of conversion optimisation.

Tips for optimising site search and navigation
There is a multitude of elements on a website that require continual testing and tweaking. Yet when considering the visitor’s perspective, navigation and site search functions represent an integral part of the online experience – and an opportunity for conversion.

The key aim of site search and navigation is to enable website visitors to quickly find the products or information they are looking for, without having to think too hard about it. Optimising this process will undoubtedly lead to an increase in conversions, improve click-throughs and strengthen online brand reputation.

•    MarketingSherpa research indicates that people who use site search are more likely to convert at two to three times the rate, than of those who don’t use it.
•    Practical E-commerce says good search can easily increase conversions by 100 per cent.
•    MarketingSherpa also found that 43 per cent of visitors go immediately to the search box.

This data highlights that those retailers not optimising such functions on their websites may be missing out on significant conversion opportunities. Implementation of the following best practice tips will allow retailers to optimise and enhance site search and navigation functions.

1.    Testing, testing, testing. In order to optimise site search, test various elements of the site search box (e.g. position, size, colour, text) and search results (e.g. view type, images, descriptions, call to actions) to determine what yields the best results and provides the best user experience.

2.    Make it convenient. Trial an auto-complete function, which means visitors can find exactly what they’re looking for, without having to guess at what keywords to use. It also means less keystrokes are required.

3.    Organise search results. Certify that search results are conducive to purchase, by including relevant search refinement details such as the brand, model, size, colour, and category options. The inclusion of images, videos and reviews and ratings in search results also contributes to establishing customer trust, and conversion.

4.    Speak the same language. By analysing and utilising the 'trigger' words that customers are using on your site within the navigation and site search, you will ensure that a website’s internal searchability remains relevant and user-friendly. This is also likely to have a knock on effect for broader SEO results.

5.    Allow ‘add to cart’ option in the search results. Adding this option to search results saves decisive customers an extra click, and provides a clear path for the next step in the purchase process. It also offers a call to action within the search results page.

The glorious world of searchandising
Whether online or offline, merchandising is a critical factor for retailers wanting to gain a competitive advantage. The increasingly popular and prevalent strategy of ‘searchandising’ enables retailers to use customer history and onsite behavioural data to develop specific marketing, merchandising and product up-sell offers.

Searchandising helps to create a relevant and streamlined customer experience and if done correctly, can contribute to a higher average conversion value. Searchandising strategies may include:

•    Offering faceted navigational search refinements (e.g. select size, colour, price range);
•    Offering product suggestions for cross-sell and up-sell (e.g. ‘You may also like…’, ‘People who bought this also bought…’);
•    Personalising the website based on a customer’s previous browsing behaviour; and
•    Displaying targeted offers and promotions within site search results.

Leveraging a searchandising strategy is award-winning retailer SurfStitch. The pure play apparel retailer offers its visitors a plethora of refinement choices, allowing them to narrow down product selection. The retailer also includes relevant promotional banners within its search results, offers similar and/or matching items on its product pages and even takes the opportunity to advertise gift cards available for purchase via its navigational menus.

More specifically, specialist bicycle pure play retailer CELL Bikes exploits searchandising strategies for its visitors looking for bicycle brands it doesn’t even stock, such as Giant. Rather than returning a ‘no results found’ message on its search results page, the retailer displays a promotional banner reading, "Don’t make a GIANT mistake!” and uses the opportunity to offer alternative search results containing similar products.
With the Australian e-commerce industry developing at a rapid rate, searchandising represents the next step in providing customers with an optimised and relevant online experience. And that is an individual experience based on personal tastes, preferences and buying habits.

Obtaining the right tools

There are many tools available to eliminate the guesswork on the best ways to optimise and refine site search and navigation. By employing such tools, variations in site design, formatting and layout can be tested, while also viewing how such changes impact upon visitor behaviour.

When selecting optimisation tools and software, all too often retailers are promised the world only to find out the chosen software is not user-friendly or requires unexpected resources. What’s worse is when these new tools or software are not nearly agile or responsive enough for the ever-changing world of e-commerce.

The Forrester Research report also advises retailers to “select technologies that specialise in optimising their most critical marketing decisions [while] keeping in mind that optimisation is not a one-time-project, delivered through a single solution.”

Software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions offer market-responsive agility and ability to scale up with a business, with little hassle and hindrance. In addition to this, SaaS solutions offer users access to reporting that is both easy to understand and presents actionable data quickly, in order to find out how to best optimise a website.

Site search and the optimised m-commerce experience
With Nielsen reporting that one in 10 Australian online shoppers use their mobile device to make a purchase, the new frontier of mobile commerce (m-commerce) is fast rushing upon Australian retailers.

Customers are usually on the move, seeking information that’s easy to navigate and in a digestible format. More often than not, customers are searching for something specific when using a smartphone in this way. Given this, along with the limitations of mobile devices with drastically reduced screen real estate and typing functionality, as well as varying data speeds from different carriers, a critical element of an efficient and optimised m-commerce offering is a user-friendly site search function.

While tempting to display an entire website in all of its glory, there is simply too much information to process via a mobile device. Worse still is that half of the links will not be clickable; the user will become frustrated and bounce to another site, leaving you high- and conversion-dry.

However giving the search box prominence on a mobile site enables users to efficiently find the product they want, encouraging interaction and, most importantly, conversion.

Further to this, implementing some of the following best practice site search tactics on a mobile site or mobile app will also assist in providing a mobile optimised experience:

•    Listing relevant and popular search results first;
•    Offering links for synonyms and options for similar products; and
•    Displaying product prices, ratings, reviews and stock availability.

With the world of online retail expanding and global borders diminishing, retailers have numerous opportunities available in order to differentiate their e-commerce offerings, increase conversion rates and gain generous proportions of the retail wallet.
By considering what is best from a user point of view, and then continually testing and tweaking, retailers will be able to conquer conversion optimisation.

Mark Brixton is the country manager for SLI Systems, a developer of Software-as-a-Service learning-based search and navigation solution providers.

This was article featured in the Jun/Aug RetaiBiz magazine.