Product search & discovery - Next big thing for e-commerce?

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Emil Waszkowski
Product search & discovery - Next big thing for e-commerce?

Imagine a store with an unlimited number of items and enough storage space to fit everything you could possibly think of. Then, imagine that this store is always at a short distance.

Sounds unbelievable? Actually, such stores do exist. Online. This, however, might be more of a curse than a blessing - an enormous offer is not helpful when you can’t find exactly what you are looking for, or you simply can’t decide what you need. There are dozens of psychological studies stating that having too much choice makes people miserable. When consumers have hundreds of options, eventually choose one and the product ends up dissatisfying - they put the blame on themselves for making a bad decision.

Basically, with so many alternatives, it’s easy to imagine that you could have chosen better. It is called a ‘Paradox of choice’, which doesn’t only affect your purchase decisions, but plenty of other aspects of your life. How does e-commerce try to deal with this paradox, then? With product discovery through search engines and filters for starters, and more sophisticated solutions like social commerce, visual search and voice-driven shopping. Here’s what all the fuss is about.

Product discovery in a nutshell

Customers do not always enter a shop in order to buy specific products - they may just feel like browsing your store. Some of them spend hours wondering what to choose, others decide on the spot. No matter how your customers go about online shopping, though, there’s a way to make it easier for them and increase your sales in the long run.

Let’s start with product discovery. It’s a process that takes place in an online store - when someone visits it and finds a product he or she wants to buy. It’s not an entirely new concept, yet, it has recently gone through some changes. Initially, e-commerce sites used mostly merchant-defined categorisation and very few product attributes (such as colour and size) to narrow down the search for their customers. Luckily, site search and navigation now seem to be more advanced than that. Actually, with more product data available and categorised, it becomes possible to answer the shopper’s needs more precisely and thus, increase sales.

What can be done to improve product discovery in an online store?

  • Listing as many product attributes as possible and allowing the shoppers to mix and match the filters,

  • Optimising on-site search - thanks to Google, customers are now used to the ability to enter a few (often misspelt) words into a search box and get results immediately,

  • Creating specific, well-optimised landing pages to make relevant product categories visible to search engines,

  • Featuring current offers, personalised product listings (“Recently viewed” or “You might also like”, based on one’s browsing history), brand new and trending items, or any educational content that can encourage purchases on a homepage,

  • Maximising upsells with “secondary” product discovery - enabling shoppers to browse the offer not only once they visit the store, but further down the line (when they land on a product page, add the item to cart or proceed to checkout). This can be enhanced with push notifications or “related items” widgets, for example.

How else are product discovered nowadays?

Unfortunately, potential customers might not always be familiar with your store, and it can take a while before they visit it and look for some products on-site. This is where search engines and social media come in useful - especially with visual and voice search being on everyone’s lips these days.

Social commerce

The purpose of social commerce is to sell products directly through social networks. It may seem like social media marketing, but it’s not: you’re not redirecting your fans and followers to an online store, but rather offer them the ability to purchase a product within the network they’re using.

Let’s be honest - social media is already a powerful tool to discover products. Thanks to the shopping features, though, it’s now much easier for your customers to buy what catches their attention on social media. Especially since e-commerce purchase journeys can be quite complex, with many sites redirecting users from one platform to another and asking to complete multiple steps along the way.

Interestingly enough, even though Facebook is more of a pioneer when it comes to social commerce, it’s Instagram and Pinterest that are said to be the most promising platform for selling products. These social networks are slowly becoming go-to-platforms for product research and discovery, which means that it might be high time to polish your content and take advantage of the shopping features available.

Visual search

With the increasing popularity of Instagram and Pinterest, it’s only a matter of time before products are searched with pictures as effectively as now with keywords. In fact, research shows that consumers are very interested in using visual search as part of their shopping experience. According to Gartner, by 2020 30% of all searches will be conducted ‘queryless’, with Pinterest being one of the early leaders that shape this field, together with Google (Google Lens), Amazon, Bing and Microsoft.

That’s hardly surprising. Visual search uses real-world images as the stimuli for online searches - it means that no search query is needed, neither written nor spoken. Given that people seem to be taking (and enjoying) pictures of pretty much anything these days, visual search can be a powerful tool for product discovery. It can be used to identify products based on a picture, find shoppable options for whatever they’re looking for, or even suggest similar products to buy.

It’s important to take into account, though, that visual search is still in its infant stage - technologically, it’s much more difficult to achieve relevant search results than based on written or oral queries. Mostly because visual search is powered by computer vision and machine learning, which takes time to be trained in order to provide the necessary context to the images. Still, as the dominance of visual search appears to be inevitable, it might be a good idea to start taking better care of image SEO - simply by having relevant, high-quality, yet compressed images on your site, and optimising their titles and descriptions for the chosen keywords.

Voice-driven shopping

In the past, almost every search started with typing in a few words in a search box. The times might have changed, but, it might take a while before voice search makes a lasting impact on e-commerce.

Nonetheless, voice-driven shopping has a real chance to become mainstream. It serves as an alternative to using a mouse for ordering and buying online. Instead, your customers need a voice assistant and a simple command, which makes completing a purchase faster.

Of all the voice assistants, Amazon’s Alexa is clearly the first choice for shopping, according to the Intent Lab study. Customer can use an Alexa-enabled device to search for, order, and buy products from Amazon using voice. Basically, whenever you voice your need to buy a specific product, Alexa will check your buying history and suggest products based on your past purchases. If there were no other requests like the current one, Alexa will most likely suggest an ‘Amazon Choice’ product (which, according to Amazon means “highly rated, well-priced items available to ship immediately”). Once you’re happy with the choice, Alexa will place the order for you. It’s simple as that.

Since virtual assistants are constantly analysing their owner’s shopping patterns and behaviour, reordering products with voice commands can take a matter of seconds. It’s not the only possibility, though. Soon, voice commerce will be used to compare, buy, return, and exchange products, not to mention track orders. Some of these options are already available, but still not used that widely.

***

Without a doubt, the future of e-commerce is bright and full of innovations, which should be exciting for both businesses and customers. In fact, China is already way ahead when it comes to innovative solutions in e-commerce - by using live-streaming to engage potential shoppers, as an example.

But, with more online stores and products available, it will also get more difficult to grab customer attention and maintain their interest throughout their shopping journey. Luckily, effective product search and discovery can truly make a difference for e-commerce owners, especially with social commerce and new search methods being on the rise. It might be high time to start taking advantage of them and improve product discovery within your store, once and for all.

Originally published by E-commerce Germany News

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Emil Waszkowski

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