What were you looking for?

September 10, 2015

Search is a wonderful thing. I can find anything I want, as long as I have fifteen seconds to spare and a connection to Google. But it gets a bit trickier when I’m trying to find something on pretty much any other website, and especially when shopping online.

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Most shopping sites have some sort of search and ranking functionality. Many of them are really bad. It’s really not the fault of the development team: search engines are a distinct breed of animal, and require a different toolbox to properly set up and maintain. Google tweaks its algorithm on a near-daily basis, but no other company on this planet is able to sink in the resources Google does for search optimization.

We at Supply Clinic have been giving our search feature a significant amount of thought recently. Yes, there’s always a built-in search algorithm that ranks items by virtue of relevance. But without tweaks and updates, a default setup is almost never any good. The process is kind of like stepping foot in your brand new car. Yeah, it’s awesome, V6, four-wheel drive, eight cup holders and Sirius XM radio. But if you can’t adjust the driver’s seat at all, you might just be more comfortable taking your grandmother’s station wagon out for a joyride. (It’s even pre-loaded with your favorite Simon and Garfunkel tunes!)

Which brings me back to search. (It doesn’t, but I was always taught the importance of transitions, so roll with me here.) Relevance can, and needs to, be tweaked. For starters, if you’re looking for a specific type of toothbrush, it ought to be as easy as possible to find. And “burnishers” shouldn’t appear at the top of a query for “burs,” for instance. But search updates extend well beyond that. How much do you weight item names versus descriptions? Are there any words you treat as synonyms?

A truly robust system also needs to take into account item popularity. Statistically speaking, it’s much more likely the specific item I’m looking for is the popular model instead of the unpopular model. But this comes with a caveat: items which are higher up in search rankings are also more likely to be ordered. So there needs to be a counterbalance in place to ensure that item popularity doesn’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy thanks to prime placement.

We at Supply Clinic have already built out a relatively elaborate filter system on the left side of any search. Items are divided into categories, subcategories, and in some cases sub-subcategories. (Some items can be found in multiple categories, if applicable.) There are also attributes on the bottom of the left column, meaning that you can search exclusively for large gloves, or upper arch impression trays. These buttons are now responsive, meaning you don’t have to re-search once you’ve selected certain filters.

So we’re reworking search. It’ll undoubtedly be an ongoing process, reflecting not only increased understanding of user intentions but user purchasing decisions as well. If any aspect of search doesn’t work the way it should, please let us know and we’ll take it into account.

Because you’re not always in the mood for Simon and Garfunkel.

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