Death to bad search results: Elicit fixes website search with some context and a human touch

By Michael Carney , written on April 25, 2014

From The News Desk

Most major brand websites fail to satisfy their customers’ needs. It’s not because the right content isn’t available, but rather because users routinely struggle to find what they’re looking for and leave disappointed. Menu-based navigation systems are confusing and ineffective, while traditional search solutions are more likely to turn up corporate press releases than actual product- or service-related content.

This doesn’t have to be the case.

Elicit is a Chicago-based startup that has been solving this search and discovery problem for major brands like Motorola (previous), Blackberry, Xerox, Time Warner Cable, Bank of America, GoodYear, Whirlpool, and others. The SaaS company was founded in 2011 by a pair of former ad agency execs out of first-hand frustrations.

“We saw that customers and users increasingly start interacting with new sites via the search box,” Elicit co-founder and President Adam Heneghan says. “You spend so much money getting people to your site, but then do a bad job of satisfying them at that point. It makes absolutely no sense. More than 80 percent of site abandonment happens at search box.”

Elicit’s answer was to take search away from the CTO and put it in the hands of the CMO. This meant moving away from index-based search toward a context- and intent-based approach. Elicit combines standard techniques like phonetic matching, spelling correction, and synonyms detection, with more propriety intent-based tactics and manual mapping to deliver the “right” search results more often. Pando's Nathaniel Mott previously described it as "human-driven search curation."

Marketers use the company’s drag and drop interface and historical search behavior data to intelligently target user search queries by context, time, keyword, and location. The goal is to associate content on the site with the ways that consumers think about and describe it, rather than simply through keywords matching which is often rooted in a company’s own internal messaging. The result is a better user experience, the company claims.

Motorola, for example, has been able to reduce its site abandonment by 50 percent since implementing Elicit’s search product, according to Heneghan. A window manufacturer client increased its overall customer satisfaction score by more than 20 percent. And on average, Elicit users see search box conversion increase from a standard of 1 percent to 25 percent.

Co-founder Eric Heneghan says a classic example of the failure of traditional search came following a Super Bowl commercial for the Motorola Xoom tablet. Consumers flocked to the company’s website and routinely searched for “Super Bowl” and “Zoom,” to no avail. Shortly after this experience, Motorola implemented Elicit and will be able to avoid missing similar opportunities in the future. Whether the marketing department has the forsight to map the “Suber Bowl” search query to the Xoom product page in advance, or does so in a real-time response to data collected by the Elicit platform, the result is still better than anything that would occur with a traditional, inflexible search system.

“The second you talk to a brand, it’s immediately obvious to them why this is important,” says Greycroft Partners partner and Elicit investor John Elton.

Elicit’s search results are often displayed as a combination of images and text rather than simply blue hyperlinks, making for a strikingly simpler experience. That said, the company doesn’t replace its clients’ existing search solutions. Instead it augments and supersedes them with its own results. Elicit also operates an ad-server that allows brands to promote contextually relevant campaigns within their search results.

On the backend, Elicit users get access to an analytics dashboard that monitors user behavior, tracking keyword frequency, the ways that people arrive at individual pieces of content, and so forth. The goal is to allow users quickly understand where the search process can be more effective and to reorient to better surface desired results – which in most cases means products, services, and support.

“People typically assume that this is a huge, impossible problem to solve. But the reality is, when you look at the data, you can typically solve nearly 100 percent of search queries with just 100 or so keywords, once the data has been properly organized,” Eric Heneghan says.

This week, Elicit announced the extension of its 2012 Series A round to add one more strategic venture investor. At the time, the company raised $1.5 million from Greycroft Partners, First Round Capital, ff Venture Capital, and Buddy Media founder Michael Lazerow. It has now added Chicago Ventures to that list, bringing in another $525,000 from this new investor, as well as pro-rata contributions from existing investors.

“We just saw a ton of strategic value in having [Chicago Ventures] on board so we decided to reopen the round,’ Adam Heneghan says. “Kevin [Willer] headed up Google’s Chicago operations and Stuart [Larkins] was formerly at Performics. They just really get it and have already added a ton of value.”

Elicit is operating profitably today and continues to grow its client roster and its revenue, the Heneghans say. The company is certainly not cash constrained today, but don’t rule out an institutional round in the future.

“We’re not in a hurry to raise, but we may down the road,” Eric Heneghan says.

“These guys have done a phenomenal job thus far and really have an enviable customer portfolio, especially given the small amount they’ve raised,” Elton says. “The remaining risk is really all about execution, as it often is – hiring and scaling.”

Going forward, the plan is to expand the scope of the Elicit platform to include a self-serve offering aimed at smaller brands and agencies.

As for competition, neither the Heneghan brothers nor Elicit’s investors are terribly concerned with other companies stepping into this market.

“This is still a huge problem in the market, so the opportunity hasn’t changed,” Elton says. “It’s really important that these founders come from an agency background. Enterprise search is usually built by technologists, but the reality is that these guys are just more comfortable talking to and solving problems for marketers.”

“The reality is that the bar is so low today with on-site search that any incremental benefit we can deliver has huge impact,” Adam Heneghan says.

If only they could land Apple as a client and solve its App Store search problem.

[Image via Laura Cowan]