RealTime IT News

Majority of Online Stores Fail Search Engine Test

About two-thirds of online stores have ineffective search engines, leaving customers frustrated and apt to do business with a competitor, according to a new study.

While a few top e-retailers, like Lands' End, Petco and L.L. Bean, are rated highly for their sites' search capabilities, the majority of online stores treat search engines like an afterthought, according to a new study from 37Signals, LLC, a Web design and usability firm based in Chicago. That means millions of shoppers are left groping through online stores, doing repetitive searches, thinking up more and more descriptive words, browsing aimlessly through page after page -- until they leave to shop at another Web site or even a brick-and-mortar store.

''It definitely seems to us that the top third of these sites put a lot of effort into figuring out how people get into their sites,'' says Scott Upton, a usability expert at 37Signals. ''The rest of them treat it like something users won't rely upon heavily. They're wrong... If you're going to have a search on your site, it better work. Customers are getting frustrated.''

And according to the study, there's quite a bit for customers to be frustrated with.

Seventy-two percent of the top 25 online retailers studied could not properly match misspelled search terms with the correct product. Another 68% didn't offer shoppers the ability to sort their search results, such as allowing them to pick out a certain brand, price range or availability. The study also showed that 56% failed to allow customers to describe the item they're searching for, instead demanding a specific name or title.

''People tend to perform the first search and if they don't find anything, they're not likely to perform more than one more search. They stop looking,'' says Upton. ''As somebody trying to shop for something, it's frustrating. I feel like they're not interested in my needs at all.

''As customers ourselves, we get really frustrated with the site, and the line between being frustrated with the site and being frustrated with the company is a blurry one,'' Upton adds. ''I don't have the time to figure out how Apple wants me to search for a cable or MotherNature.com wants me to search for a nutritional supplement. That's their job. Not mine.''

The Apple Store got the study's worst search engine rating, receiving a Minus Four rating on a scale of Five to Minus Five.

''The Apple Store could improve in every area we examined in this report,'' according to the survey. ''Notably, the site was appalling when confronted with misspelled search terms and often returned completely different results for simple plurals, like 'USB cable' and 'USB cables'.''

Finishing out the bottom five were Red Envelope, 1-800 Flowers.com, Finish Line, and MotherNature.com. All received a negative rating.

On the other end of the scale, Lands' End and Petco tied for the top rating, both pulling in a perfect score of Five. The study reports that both sites have given their search engines 'careful attention'. The Petco site 'performs like a helpful sales clerk,' while the Lands' End search engine is clearly 'more than an afterthought.'

''We weren't too surprised by Lands' End because they take a lot of pride in their customer service in general,'' says Upton. ''We were surprised that Amazon didn't triumph because it is a great site, but they didn't do as well as we expected. We were surprised to see Apple do so poorly. Their ease-of-use really paled in comparison to a lot of others.''

Online retail giant Amazon.com came in seventh place with a Three rating. L.L. Bean came in fifth with a rating of Four, and eBay came in 16th place with a rating of One.