No Items Match Your Query

by John Almberg, Identry LLC, September 2007

Imagine building the ultimate brick-and-mortar stamp store. You spare no expense on the décor, sheathing the walls with rosewood paneling or exposed brick; on the sales floor, you build an archipelago of mahogany and glass display cases; then you stock those cases with the finest treasures of the stamp world.

Most importantly, you man your sales floor with helpful and knowledgeable sales people. The kind of people who make buying from you an easy and pleasurable experience.

On the Web, many dealers strive to deliver a quality experience: a rich graphic design; an online catalog that displays their stamps in way that is both useful and elegant; and the best inventory in their specialty.

Now, if high-quality graphic design replaces rosewood and brick, and an online catalog replaces mahogany and glass display cases, what replaces those helpful and knowledgeable sales people?

In a word: search. Your site search is your #1 sales clerk. It's the only place your customers can turn when they need help finding something on your website.

To maximize the return on your website investment, your site search needs to be as helpful and knowledgeable as a good sales clerk. Last issue, I talked about the basics of site search. This time, we'll dive into some features that can help make your site search a smarter, more profitable seller.

Training your #1 sales clerk

Imagine walking the floor in your ideal stamp store. Your best sales clerk is helping a customer. They just happen to be standing next to a gleaming case full of classic 19th century US stamps.

The customer asks “Do you have anything from the 10¢ Washington Issue?”.

You smile, knowing you've got a beautiful (and pricey)  #2 single that this particular customer will love.

But you're shocked to hear your sales clerk say (in a strange, mechanical voice), “We don't have any items that match your query: '10¢ Washington Issue'. Please broaden your search!”

Outrageous, right? But this is exactly the kind of answer you get from website search forms all the time. The problem is that computers don't have your in-depth knowledge and flexible brain that understands “10¢ Washington Issue”, “10 cent Washington Issue”, “Scott #2”, “Catalog #2”, “US #2”, or even just “#2” or “2”, not to mention mis-spellings like: “10 cent Wishington ” and “Scot #2”.

You wouldn't tolerate a dim witted, untrainable sales clerk in your brick-and-mortar store, so why settle for a search tool that only understands one or two variations?

You don't have to. A good search tool can be trained – just as you were once trained – to understand a large number of variations and mis-spellings.

Since each search tool has its own way of learning, I won't get into the specifics (consult your documentation for details), but the basics are the same for all generic systems. For each type of item:

  1. identify all common variations and misspellings
  2. enter those variations and misspellings into the system as valid alternatives

Learning from your customers

I can hear you now: “You mean for each item, or type of item in my inventory, I have to manually enter a large number of variations and misspellings? That's a huge amount of work!”

You're right. But you need a good search tool. Luckily, there are two techniques that can make the job easier.

First, by baking general 'stamp knowledge' right into your search tool.

For example, to teach a human clerk that “Scott #2”, “Catalog #2, “US #2”, and “#2” all mean the same thing (most of the time), you wouldn't have to 'enter' that knowledge into his head for each and every catalog number. You could just teach him the general rule and he'd be able to apply it to all catalog numbers. It's possible to build this same sort of general knowledge into a stamp-specific search engine. We're doing that, for example, with our new Top Seller II website system.

Second, you can minimize data entry by focusing on the variations and misspellings your customers actually type into your search tool.

To do that, your search tool needs to record every search made by your customers into your website database, or perhaps to a special log file. Then whenever you spot a new variation or misspelling, you can enter it manually into your search system. Eventually, you will cover most common searches.

Bottom line: just as good sales help can boost your off-line sales, good site search can boost your on-line sales. While investing in graphic design, don't forget to invest in site search!

Next issue, we'll look at a few more ways a good site search can help your sales. In the meantime, have a great month SELLING STAMPS ON THE WEB.