The Search Box Will Never Die, Let's Stop Trying to Kill It

By Erin Griffith , written on July 20, 2012

From The News Desk

There is a new best practice among ecommerce companies that want to be able to categorize themselves as "social commerce." (Note: That's different from F-commerce, which has thus far been totally disappointing.)

It's the practice of eliminating the search bar entirely. I first heard of this idea last year from John Caplan, the CEO of ecommerce site OpenSky.

“Internet shopping was designed by men for men. They walk into a store with a list of things, they search for them and get out as fast as possible,” he told me last year. Search box-free sites like OpenSky offer a more female-friendly experience, letting women discover new products tailored to their interests, I wrote.

There are plenty of others who follow the same philosophy. Ideeli. ShoeDazzle. JustFab. Gilt. One Kings Lane. Rue La La. The BeachMint family of sites. Most sites that require you to "become a member" before you can browse. Any site that has personalized collections or showrooms based on a quiz you've filled out.

The promise of personalization has been huge: Imagine if you walked into a physical store, and that store magically rearranged itself around you based on your preferences.

Made perfect sense. Browse away, ladies! We don't go to the mall and walk straight to the thing we want with blinders on. We go there to peruse. I bought into this idea last year, even declaring that "the search box was dead."

That was before I tried actually shopping on these sites. They're great if you have endless time to spend wading through images, clicking on showrooms, and navigating various categories of goods in front of a computer with a fast internet connection. Plenty of the search-less sites I mentioned don't even allow you to browse by basic categories like "shoes" or "earrings." You have to click into pages based on a designer or a collection. One VC I talked to called this idea "shopping as entertainment." I call it frustrating as hell.

It seems that every site wants to be an anti-Amazon, forgetting that Amazon succeeded because it satisfied customers' needs. The only way for a customer to express what he or she needs is through a search bar. He or she might enjoy a good browse, too, but why take away that option? I was surprised when my somewhat expensive decision to become a customer of the sites I regularly write about turned into more of a mental burden than a financial one. I understand that the online boutiques I'm talking about don't want to feel like peddlers of nuts and bolts, non-discretional items, competing with each other on price. But they've taken personalization to the point of dysfunction.

Search often gets killed on ecommerce sites because the company's search technology stinks and the retailer concludes it just doesn't work, says Scott Brave, co-founder and CTO of ecommerce personalization software maker Baynote. But often it's that the site hasn't determined how its users express their needs and how those match with their inventory. Brave used the example of the customer who says they're looking for a "cheap, high-end camera." That sort of query would confuse the hell out of a search engine, unless the retailer was able to identify a pattern and tweak its algorithm accordingly.

So instead of solving the difficult search problems, we get personalization. We fill out a quiz, or we follow a few celebrities, or we merely click around, and the site generates a gallery of what we're most likely to like and makes it difficult for us to navigate elsewhere.

The problem is that personalization just isn't predictive enough. It works well in one way: The same way that advertising works--it can tap into a want or need that people may not realize they have. It can create demand for an item by simply introducing it. But when you want to respond to an individual user, that's not going to cut it. Often a user arrives at a site with a Google search and they're ready to take action. But once they get there, finding what they were looking for is a crapshoot. Further, even if you wanted to browse "for entertainment," you would happily click through each and every category on a page if the site's merchandizing is good enough.

Even "shopping as entertainment" customers have needs, and right now the search box is the only way they can express that need. There's one irony to my frustrating shopping experiences: As I worked my way down the list, I noticed that the site that introduced me to the idea of killing the search box--OpenSky--now has one.

Kaplan isn't sold, though. He said via email: "I hate the search bar. We put it up on the site to test its value and less than 5% of our shoppers use it. It just proves my point that people love to discover things through curation and a personalized experience, they're tired of searching."

Maybe he's right. But the addition of search is simple enough, and would make at least one shopper very happy.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]