By Bridget McCrea

Why electrical distributors need to put more effort into developing onsite search functionalities that help their customers work smarter, better, and faster.

You may not realize it, but that unassuming little box tucked in the corner of your website's front page could be a major deal breaker for your customers. We're talking about the search box (aka, search field)—that single-line text box with the dedicated function of accepting user input that can be utilized to search through a database. Like it or not, customers use this seemingly tiny feature of your website to find specific products, research entire product categories, input part numbers, and take other steps during the shopping and procurement process.

Not all distributors get it right when it comes to site search. One NAED member's search box is positioned at the top of its website and delineated with the words "website/eCatalog" and the telltale magnifying glass icon. Key the word "transformer" into the box and the site returns a list of category matches (with suggestions for narrowing the search) and several pages of product matches (with thumbnail pictures of each). Another distributor has no such function on any of its web pages, and instead uses its product page to provide a laundry list of products that visitors have to sort through to get what they want. In between these two extremes are a host of other companies that simply aren't using their sites' search boxes to meet their customers' online buying needs.

According to Justin King, a senior partner with B2X Partners in Ashburn, Va., and founder of ecommerceandB2B.com, 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.  

"Your search box sucks. Fix it. It will dramatically improve your customers' experience," writes King in Does your Search Box Suck? Why You Should Fix It.

"The infamous 'zero results found' or irrelevant search results is guaranteed to frustrate even the most patient of users. A few minutes or even seconds of that experience is enough. So they leave."

Stop Frustrating Your Customers
The last thing any B2B company wants to deal with is a mass exodus of online customers due to frustration over an ineffective search tool, but that's exactly what happens when you ignore this part of your website. When that tool produces too many results, irrelevant results, no results or all, or some combination of all three, the odds that your frustrated customer will click over to the next online seller will rise exponentially. The lack of good on-site search is costing most B2B businesses," King asserts, noting that in B2B, the area of biggest impact from e-commerce is the ability to dramatically lower search and information costs.

"When a B2B user visits a company's site, it is improbable to know what problem the user is trying to solve, or what he or she is even looking for," King points out. "Even if the problem was known, it is unlikely to recognize how the user wants to solve that problem. What information do they have in front of them? Do they have a brand, product name, part number, competitor part number, or just generic attributes? You just don't know."

That's where good search functionalities step in to save the day. "Search allows B2B users to find what they are looking for the way they want to find it," says King. "And while onsite search is now a standard among websites, customers don't always have a good experience."

Getting the Data Right
So, what does it take to create a great online search experience for your customers?

"First, understand that search is critically important to your site, and then start looking at ways to optimize it," says King. "Good search is based on good data, so make product data and content a priority within your organization."  

This is an important point because it's not a problem for the average retailer, who probably only manages a few hundred different SKUs (if that). "For these companies, search isn't a huge problem," King points out. "However, when you're selling complex products in the B2B world, you really have to give your customers the complex, site-based tools that they need to find exactly what they're looking for."

And that's precisely why the search box is so critical. In fact, King says that small, white text box in the corner of your site should be a top priority. "If your goal is to solve your customers' problems, then this is one area that shouldn't be overlooked," he says, pointing out that the search box also presents new merchandising opportunities for distributors. Companies like Home Depot and Grainger, for example, provide a combination of text results, product images, prices, and even availability in their "type-ahead" boxes (see Part II of this article for more information on type ahead functionalities)—all with the goal of getting customers to their destinations in the fewest number of clicks as possible. 
 
"This is an area where I see a lot of opportunity for innovation," says King. An electrical distributor who is working with electrical contractors located within a specific geographic region, for example, should provide an onsite search engine that facilities that quoting process (on the part of the electrical contractor). And even if those quotes never turn into actual orders, the goodwill associated with this simple function allows current or potential customers to do their jobs—even at midnight on the day before a bid is due.

"This creates 'stickiness' for your site, customer loyalty, and a deeper relationship," says King. "It also allows you to extend your offline customer relationships into the online world, where so many more of them are shopping, researching, and buying these days."

In Part II of this article series, we'll show you how to get the most benefit from your website's search tool.

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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.