By Bridget McCrea

As you learned from Part I of this article, there's a very compelling reason to make online searching easier for your customers:  70% of the time they spend on the internet is dedicated to the process of finding information. And, according to Multichannel Merchant, when asked to cite the top features or functions they would most like from suppliers in the selling process, most business buyers (60%) chose enhanced search functionality on their website. 

"Onsite search is a key contributor to the success of almost any e-commerce business, but it is often deprioritized," writes Bigcommerce's Tracey Wallace in How to Nail Upselling on Your Website."Onsite search, if done well, can lead to higher conversions and increased average order value for any online retailer."

Calling online search functionality an absolute "must have" for electrical distributors that want to get the most out of their e-commerce investments, Justin King, a senior partner with B2X Partners in Ashburn, Va., and founder of ecommerceandB2B.com, offers these six strategies for getting the biggest bang for your search tool buck:

1) Don't make your customers jump through hoops   
Put the search tool front and center on your site, and make it easy for your customers to find and use. "You wouldn't ask a customer for a password before placing an order via phone, so don't put up those kinds of barricades online," King warns. "Focus on making the online experience easier than—or, at least as easy as—picking up the phone and getting information and/or placing an order."

2) Give your search tool type-ahead capabilities
Type-ahead (also known as autocomplete or autosuggest) is an onsite search functionality that allows distributors to guide their customers to matching products as they type. This helps your customers save time, avoid spelling errors, and find what they need in the most efficient manner possible. "A good type-ahead not only considers top searches but considers what they mean and what they don't mean, which can be translated into a curated list of categories, products, and popular searches," writes Seth Early in How to get the most out of type-ahead: Autocomplete and Autosuggest."The main purpose of type-ahead in a website search box environment is to show the user a short list of search results even before the search is performed. This way the user can be lured in to choosing one of many good options even before they have completed his or her search." As a starting point, King tells distributors to consider what customers are really looking for. Is it a specific product? A product category? How-to information? Installation videos? Then, use this intelligence to develop an intuitive search box that only answers those questions, but that also helps improve online sales conversion rates. "Your customers should be able to use the type-ahead box to find what they're looking for in the least number of clicks," says King.

3) Use the search box for upselling and cross-selling
Good onsite search capabilities give customers more than what they're looking for. And they give electrical distributors the perfect platform from which to upsell, cross-sell, and offer ancillary products like installation kits, cables, and wires. "Offering complementary product recommendations on each product page is the most successful approach to increase your average order value (AOV)," Wallace writes. "By recommending the top parallel components that go with each main item, you'll improve your ability to drive larger transactions. Customers usually respond well when presented with this type of specific offer as they often don't know exactly what they want or need beyond the main product, and are looking for help finalizing their product selection."

4) Don't neglect these important elements
Acknowledging that the typical electrical distributor sells thousands (or even millions) of products, King says the first step is to organize that parts and equipment information in a logical fashion, knowing that most B2B customers want their search to include: 

  • Context – Search should be personalized by who the user is (industry, company, role, etc.)
  • Contract – What products they can buy and at what agreed-upon price?
  • Warehouse inventory
  • Manufacturer part number
  • Competitor cross reference
  • Part number matching (without any special characters)
  • Automated spell check
  • Past orders – Search and filter based on the user's past purchases

5) Get to know the platforms  
To create the best possible search experience for their customers, electrical distributors need the tools and platforms designed to make that happen. According to King, two of the top B2B e-commerce engines currently available are Apache Solr and Apache Lucene. These open-source software options provide search technology that allows companies to optimize their search tools. King says these platforms go beyond basis and ineffective "database search" and provide Java-based indexing and search technology, as well as spellchecking, hit highlighting, and advanced analysis/tokenization capabilities. Achieving the search goals outlined in Parts I and II of this article series requires more than just database search, he notes. "Solr and Lucene use indexing as a foundation," says King, "all in a free/open-sourced format."

6)  Don't be afraid to ask for the right kind of help
If the idea of indexing your distributorship's 10,000 SKUS and then adding product photos, spec sheets, prices, and other elements to the mix sounds daunting, that's because it probably is. And to the electrical distributor that wants to improve its online search functionality, King says:  "You're not alone." He also says that the task can be complex, yet once it's addressed the rewards will start to come fairly quickly. "The whole reason that most companies have bad search boxes is because this is a fairly complex thing to do," he notes. For anyone who lacks the in-house search expertise needed to get the job done right, King suggests calling on an expert for help. Organizations like Elastic, BloomReach, and Brain Rock Commerce all offer search support for companies that need help in this area. "There are also consultants who live and breath this stuff on a daily basis," says King. "These search technology experts have different skillsets than web developers. A lot of companies don't realize this, and that's why so many of them wind up with average or below-average search functionalities."

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McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.