Is Your Web Site Costing You Customers?

With millions of engineers and technical buyers now using the Internet as a primary product sourcing tool, manufacturers of machine parts and components must ask: What’s the first impression my company makes? How is our Web site being perceived by those who use it to source parts, components and services?

Article From: 5/17/2004 Modern Machine Shop,

A first impression is delivered just once.

With millions of engineers and technical buyers now using the Internet as a primary product sourcing tool, manufacturers of machine parts and components must ask: What's the first impression my company makes? How is our Web site being perceived by those who use it to source parts, components and services?

Engineers have ranked navigation difficulty and lack of useful content as their top reasons for abandoning a Web site. If users of your Web site can't quickly and easily find detailed product information and specifications, they're likely to leave your site and find what they need on a competitor's site. Lost leads and lost sales are the price you pay.

To reach engineers and other decision makers, manufacturers must give their Web sites a competitive edge. An effective way to create a competitive advantage is to improve content classification, navigation and search capabilities. These improvements will provide your users with consistent, easy access to your catalog line items, parts, components and products. Leads and sales will increase because buyers will find exactly what they are looking for, which will also give sales and customer service representatives a welcome break from handling the task themselves.

Your Web Site: Friend Or Foe?

For most parts manufacturers, a Web site is a significant marketing vehicle for reaching a target audience of prospects and current buyers, especially now that engineers are relying less on other media to source technical product information. It makes good business sense for a manufacturer to continually invest in building, enhancing and maintaining its Web site.
What do visitors see and perceive when clicking on your Web site? To find the answer, you need to ask serious questions about the quality and effectiveness of your site. Do you offer comprehensive product and service information and continuously update it? Can the site be navigated easily, and does the search function help users quickly find precise information? If a user suffers through a frustrating experience because of the technical makeup of a site, that user will typically choose to abandon the visit and start looking elsewhere.

Web rage—the Internet's version of road rage—boils to the surface after disappointing query results are returned during the course of 12 minutes on average, and often within just 3 minutes. At that point, the frustrated searcher abandons a particular Web site and renews the search somewhere else.

Is your Web site delivering the return on investment (ROI) and return on objectives (ROO) you had expected? If the answer is no—or if you don't know—then new search capabilities that speed product sourcing for users could be just what your Web site needs to reach a level at which it delivers significant and highly desirable results.

Improved Design Increases Effectiveness

Most manufacturers have many options for turning their Web sites into more effective and efficient sales and marketing machines.

First, understand what information users need to make buying decisions. The goal for any parts manufacturer must be to offer users sufficient information at the time when users need it most—specifically, when they are looking to buy.

According to one company specializing in Web site usability, a site maintained by a manufacturer can boost sales as much as 225 percent by offering sufficient product information when that specific information is desired by visitors. Manufacturers can also generate repeat sales and add-on sales by presenting rich product information that enables a buy decision to be made quickly and easily.

Where must improvement efforts focus? An electronic catalog embedded within a Web site is the most useful feature for finding technical products. Having vital information available online is crucial in determining if one parts manufacturer gets the order or if it goes to the next supplier. Engineers in a position to purchase or recommend a part or component will return to Web sites offering easy searches of updated, comprehensive catalogs, specification sheets, application notes and CAD drawings. They'll also return to sites on which useful content has been correctly aggregated and organized.

How Users Get Information

If you are planning a few changes to your Web site, first determine how users desire to find their information. Here are some factors to consider.

Featured content — Most home pages of parts and components manufacturers devote space to featured content, such as what's new or being promoted. By itself, featured content has limited appeal. If new or featured products aren't relevant to a particular user, they are ignored.

Navigation—Navigation involves users clicking on buttons and drop-down lists that direct them to specific content. For sites with strong navigation tools, such as many of the Web pages offered by consumer goods retailers, navigation features alone are usually adequate. Good navigation tools are important on a manufacturer's Web site, too. Still, millions of engineers initiating Internet searches for parts and components often need far deeper site search functionality to locate the detailed information they seek.

Search—Search functionality varies widely. Search tools often consist of a simple type-in keyword text box. Sometimes search logic includes more sophisticated Boolean operators such as "AND" or "OR." Searches can seem haphazard and be frustrating for users, especially when they're hit with too many "no results found" return messages or, just as bad, page after page of unfiltered results. A powerful search mechanism based on industry conventions that allows engineers to search by specifications or defined parameters is often critical to the success of a manufacturer's Web site.

Why Searches Fail On Many Manufacturer Sites

According to Forrester Research, 90 percent of companies say search is vital to the success of their Web sites. Search can improve access to products, lead to higher conversion rates and help lower customer service costs. A good search capability drastically reduces the need for manual intervention from customer service or sales people.

Still, search tools are notorious for promising but failing to deliver desired results. Some search tools fail to retrieve key information or to put results in order of relevance. Other tools can deliver results that are cryptic, terse descriptions, often taken directly from HTML page title tags. Because of problems with many search mechanisms, users fail to find their target content as often as 70 percent of the time. Does that statistic suggest that you, too, could be losing 70 percent of your Web site visitors out of frustration after they fail to find an exact match for a part or component?

Poor Search Capabilities Are Difficult To Fix

A Web site search is a complex process. Web sites with poor search capabilities are difficult to fix. There are several reasons for this:

Heavy content management requirements—Consider the parts manu-facturer with thousands of stock keeping units (SKUs). For a search by an engineer to work properly, Web pages must maintain consistent metadata—data that describes other data—for each SKU. In this case, metadata is data that lets a search engine know what is on a Web page so that content can be found, ranked and presented. To improve search results, a manufacturer would need to create metadata and fine-tune the user interface. Few organizations have resources to dedicate to such arduous tasks.

Problems with search results—Text-based search engines match the user's search terms to Web site pages and rank results by some type of programmed criteria. But an engineer or technical buyer who is performing a search can't be factored into the programming. Different users employ varying search terms, so the relevancy of results is subjective. Consider the engineer who types in a product name on your Web site hoping to find an exact match against the specifications. What pops up instead is a press release. Where's the relevance for that engineer?

Lack of insight—On a poorly planned and constructed Web site, it's difficult to gain insight about whether users are finding precisely what they need. If users are experiencing search problems on your Web site, they are likely jumping ship. To aggravate matters, you are powerless to take steps to hold their interest because you don't even know they've moved past you and are navigating product pages at a competitor's site.

Design Search Functionality To Meet User Needs

To ensure that search functionality at their Web sites meets the needs of sales prospects and current customers, parts manufacturers must:

Create a product taxonomy based on specifications. The top benefit of a Web site product classification system based on product specifications is that it helps engineers and technical buyers find relevant information more quickly. Classifying content by specifications—as opposed to keywords, for instance—conforms to the way engineers think about and search for parts and components.

Provide easy-to-use parametric searching capabilities. Engineers want to conduct their searches using familiar terms. For example, design information tends to be technical and requires a search mechanism that can handle logical, arithmetical and algebraic expressions. Text-based search engines cannot support an arithmetical search string. Moreover, searches based on "tree structures" are time-consuming and require users to click through a step-by-step process. The specific result they get may not be the one desired. An incorrect choice early in a search leads users down the wrong path. Worse, the users will not know about the upcoming dead end until time is wasted getting there. On the other hand, parametric searches use variables that immediately define the bounds and limits of a search, shortening the time it takes to get to a result and increasing the likelihood of finding desired matches.

Return only relevant results. Relevancy is a tricky area, because it is entirely subjective. The way to ensure relevancy of results is to offer content taxonomy and parametric searching capabilities. If you have clearly defined categories with information contained in hierarchical structures and searchable by specifications, you can quickly narrow the search and present relevant information. Proper content categories, subcategories and fields with individual values will facilitate fast user searches.

Implement database-driven content. Manufacturers should store product and component information in database tables and present content search results dynamically in HTML pages as users request information. Database-driven content offers many advantages over static HTML pages, especially for manufacturers with hundreds or thousands of items. Some advantages include faster content updates, an ability to steer tasks away from internal resources, eliminating inconsistencies and reducing human error.

Options For Improving Search

There are several options for managing search technology. They include:

  1. Engaging an outside agency. Design agencies are experts at design, not search functionality. Nor do they typically have the required knowledge about your industry or products. Would they know, for example, the difference between a helical gear and a pinion gear? The other issue is that once the Web site is designed with search functionality, someone must maintain the content. Should an outside design agency be in charge?
  2. Assigning internal resources. You could assign an internal team to fix the search mechanism on your Web site. Like any commitment of internal resources, it comes with opportunity costs. There are complexities associated with search mechanisms and content management. Is this the core competency of an internal team?
  3. Purchasing a content management system. Many content management systems are available. Their functionality is extremely important for manufacturers. On the positive side, these systems can deliver the database-driven Web site that you envision. On the negative side, most systems are generic. They lack the ability to be customized because they don't have the specific features required for managing technical product content. Their search capabilities may be rudimentary. Also, the content management system itself can be plagued with complex, inconsistent interfaces and confusing functionality. What's more, you will maintain the expense of managing product data in-house.
  4. Using hosted product search technology. A search technology provider offers services to host and manage your search capability and product content data for you. The right provider with expertise in your market sector can offer a proven service to expertly manage your product content, and can also provide sophisticated product taxonomy and specification-driven search capabilities. Parts manufacturers often prefer this type of service because it is designed in keeping with the way engineers think, work and search. In addition, the right provider will seamlessly integrate its services with your Web site to preserve and promote your brand's look and feel. Look for a provider that offers reporting capabilities to track the number and type of searches, search results, user page views, leads delivered straight to your sales department and other pertinent information.

Using hosted product search technology for your Web site means you are acquiring expertise in:

  • The taxonomy of technical products and components. Such a service ensures that your information is organized and classified correctly.
  • Industry standards for specification-based searching. The service ensures that engineers making a search are comfortable and can easily find what they need.
  • Charting the correct pathway for faster time to market. A search technology provider has the business processes and technology in place to get your electronic catalog up and running quickly.
  • Managing content and reducing drains on internal resources. The service supports ongoing data maintenance and provides search capabilities, content classification and user interfaces for presenting searches and results.

Manufacturers who are serious about improving the product search capabilities offered by their Web sites need to become better educated about sophisticated new tools. When they do, they will be seizing new opportunities to directly link a global community of users with vital specification data proven to be crucial in the purchase decision-making process.

About the author: John Schneiter is president of GlobalSpec, which he co-founded in early 1996. He has more than 15 years of general management, operations and project management experience, including 12 years at General Electric's Corporate Research and Development Center.

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