Who Needs a Premium Product Search Engine?

When Basic Search Will Satisfy Findability, and When You Need a Premium Search Engine

January 8, 2004

A premium search engine isn’t the whole answer to product findability, but it plays a big part. Does your situation demand a premium search engine, or would your money and energy be better spent on improving product data and merchandising skills? We offer a quick self-assessment check list for you to determine your situation.


If customers can’t readily find what they are looking for, and you suspect that you are losing sales because of it, what’s the remedial action? If your customers can’t connect with the right products, the problem lies in these areas:

* Inadequate product information
* Poorly organized product information
* Inadequate merchandising and sales
* Inadequate search technology

We choose the term “inadequate” carefully, intending to reflect the gap between needs and capabilities. For example, your merchandising team may be quite accomplished, but if your product line is complicated and buyers are inexperienced, then your merchandising team need to be absolute wizards and your sales team needs to be on call night and day.

You have search engines already—they came with your Oracle and IBM databases and your ecommerce server. Will a new search engine fix your findability problem? Or does implementing a new search engine simply delay resolution to the findability problem, while also incurring great expense? We’ve prepared a self assessment to help you determine whether a premium search engine is required for your situation.

The conditions that indicate the need for a basic search or a premium search engine are summarized in Table A.

Who Doesn’t Need a Premium Search Engine?
(Download the formatted PDF for the table.)
Table A. This table summarizes the conditions that are satisfied by a basic search engine and those that necessitate a premium search engine. A “true” answer to any of the three questions in the first column indicates that a basic search engine is enough. A premium search engine is required if both answers in the second column are “true.”

What a Premium Search Engine Offers

Before we go any further, let’s define what we mean by premium search engine. Premium search engines strong in the product search space include Endeca, EasyAsk, Verity, and iPhrase. These premium search engines provide most of the following capabilities:

* Merchandising tools

  • Indexing over a broad range of data sources
  • Advanced linguistic processing, including natural language analysis, stemming, synonyms, and ambiguity handling
  • Multiple search and retrieval approaches, including parametric, text, natural language, category, item, keyword, and guided navigation

Basic search engines, on the other hand, are provided with databases (such as those sold by IBM and Oracle) and with ecommerce platforms (such as IBM WebSphere Commerce Advisor). These search engines provide text, parametric, item, category, and keyword search and retrieval, but they lack guided navigation and natural language search and indexing. The ecommerce platforms offer merchandising tools; the databases do not.

Your Customers Don’t Need to Search

If your customers know what to ask for, they will need only basic search engine technology. In our experience, people know what to ask for if the following conditions are true:

* Your Customers Are Very Familiar with All of Your Products. Customers know what you offer, the range of products available in the marketplace, and how and when to use a product. They don’t search, they just ask for what they need—often by item number.

* Your Customers Speak the Same Language. When customers ask for what they need, they employ a universal terminology that everyone understands. A large cheese pizza may vary in details from supplier to supplier, but we all know what it is. There is no need to create synonyms (which are critical for sandwiches: hoagie, sub, hero, gyro, poor boy, grinder, Philly cheese steak, Reuben, burger, grilled cheese) or handle ambiguity (grinder is a sandwich, but it is also machinery) when it comes to cheese pizza. If everyone speaks the same language, you don’t need the advanced language processing that comes with premium search engines.

* Your Customer Set Changes Very Little. If your customer set is stable, then it doesn’t matter if your customers don’t speak the same language. Your relationships are deep enough that you know their terminology and needs. You’ve compiled all the words for sandwiches and included them in your product descriptions, so you don’t need advanced linguistic processing. Moreover, your customers have been around long enough to become familiar with your products, so they don’t need to search.

* Your Product Line ...

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