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Product discovery vs. product search: What’s the difference?
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When it comes to ecommerce usability, you’ve undoubtedly heard of search. The search bar is the first place people typically head when they land on a retail website home page and need to buy something.

But what about product discovery? Contrary to what you may have heard — that these two are a similar concept (and people often use the terms “search” and “discovery” interchangeably) — they’re different things.

The takeaway: in this world of continually evolving ecommerce, both effective product search and enlightening product discovery functionality are now integral to meeting your customers’ demands and expectations, not to mention raising your conversion and profit. 

To thrive in this competitive e-landscape, you need to be clear on the differences between these methodologies and respond accordingly. In order to effectively engage your eager shoppers, you must do your user research and provide them with personalized, seamless search and discovery. 

What’s more, this prioritization of both search and discovery extends to your retail goings-on beyond your website and other online locales (e.g., social media). As part of the omnichannel approach, the latest ecommerce technologies are facilitating in-store interaction, too.

Before we dive in, you’ve been patiently waiting for a definition of product discovery activities so you can make sense of this post. Let’s discuss that now!

Product search vs. product discovery 

Here’s an in-depth look at search vs. discovery that we posted recently.

To sum it up, product search involves looking carefully or thoroughly in an effort to find something.

Product discovery involves becoming aware of something new, maybe by stumbling across it while searching for something else.

The difference can be summed up like this: Searching is exclusively an active pursuit, while discovering is typically passive. 

Now let’s explore how you should approach each of these different components to avoid pain points and achieve the best outcomes.

Seek and ye shall find…

Imagine that a potential customer arrives on your site with the intention of buying a pair of sneakers. They might need them to give as a birthday gift. Or they might be interested in product information on their favorite brand.

They use the search bar on your site and start to type in what’s on their mind, maybe “sneakers casual black” or a product name

A bunch of relevant results pop up. 

They zero in on a few pairs of black ones, pick their favorite, add the sneakers to their shopping cart, and proceed to check out.

The shopper’s intention to look for sneakers is what classifies this activity as a search. Of course, while they’re searching for those shoes, reading product descriptions, evaluating their many choices, and paying for their sneaks at the virtual checkout stand, they could discover other interesting stuff they might want to buy along the way (matching socks, anyone?); we’ll get to that in a minute.

First things first: optimize your product search 

All this is to say that when you can understand your customer’s particular shopping goal (through the wonders of AI learning), you can accurately pinpoint what they want and help them quickly locate it by using your product search engine. 

The key? Your search engine must provide accurate search results, and fast. 

People on major companies’ retail sites are used to typing in a few letters of a query and receiving immediate results, even before they complete the phrase. When you can provide that capability, you’re in the game.

Search-result speed is undoubtedly a big part of the equation. Another is the quality of your search indexing — how your data is organized and structured so that your search engine can instantaneously generate relevant results. When you have both of these bases covered, your business model is sound; visitors are likely to enjoy their user journeys and leave your site with exactly what they want.

Seek and ye may discover

Let’s move on and look at the open-ended process of effective product discovery. Here are some examples of how people might unwittingly find themselves in a discovery phase and end up with additional items in their shopping carts, homes, closets…

  • The sneaker seeker from earlier is on the check-out page, ready to buy, and hey! Look at those cool related products that have popped up in a similar product category. Gym leggings. A Fitbit smartwatch. Items that people who bought those same exact sneakers she’s about to bag also bought. The chances of her liking some of these other things are good.
  • Later, she’s scrolling through Instagram to catch up with friends when she sees an ad promoting a new kind of sneakers that let you “run on the moon.” Cool. She’ll take two pairs.
  • Someone who doesn’t urgently need something in particular is browsing on his favorite commerce site and sees recommended items based on his previous search from the day before. Wow, maybe he could use one of those.

One characteristic of successful discovery is that the prospective customer is pleasantly running across something new, seeing something shiny that catches their eye; and it was not their intention (at least consciously) to do that. On the other hand, it could also indeed have been their intention to discover: some people love to browse and get lost in the experience, just like they might while wandering through a brick-and-mortar store.

Product discovery is not a new feature. As consumers, most of us continuous discovery on a regular basis and may not even realize it. Think about your last visit to Amazon.com, for instance. Did you notice what the site was recommending for you, what its other customers were supposedly buying, what would be fun for you to own? Did you end up finding intriguing items and blowing your budget? Ah, the joy of discovery.

What is new with product discovery is the lengths to which companies will go with their UX design in order to meet user needs and provide fantastic shopping experiences for their customers. 

How to optimize discovery

If you’re not applying the right product discovery techniques, you’re probably missing out on some serious revenue, as many of your competitors have fine-tuned the discovery process and are reaping the rewards of higher customer satisfaction.

Here are the techniques that many experts believe you can’t afford to neglect:

  • Navigation: Make it easy and intuitive for your customers to move around your site. In exploring what you have to offer, they may stumble across and discover additonal items that delight them
  • Autocomplete: Use predictive search to instantly offer people relevant suggestions based on the phrases they’ve begun entering.
  • Filtering: Let customers filter to make their browsing easier. Include faceting to allow them to narrow down their results.
  • Customer reviews: Positive (and negative) critiques help a customer do their due-diligence research and add a human touch to their product discovery process.
  • Recommendations: Use your customer data to provide contextual, relevant recommendations to point them to items they’re likely to be interested in.
  • Location-based search: Show customers deals and items available near their physical locations to prospectively increase brick-and-mortar store visits and opportunities for successful product discovery
  • Social media campaigns: Go where your sociable shoppers hang out online and reach out to them with offers on and information about new products, popular items, deals, and sales.

Once you’ve got the puzzle pieces of your omnichannel strategy in place, you can take a deep breath. Then you and your team members can come back and look at the metrics and the various ways you might address any user problems among your target audience and thereby improve your discovery outcomes

Get search and product discovery right

First-rate product search and excellent product discovery are both essential for delivering an exceptional personalized user experience for customers. Get it wrong and they won’t hesitate to abandon you for a competitor. Get it right and you have the potential to wow every shopper who lands on your site with an experience they won’t soon forget, as well as the ability to make them a loyal customer or subscriber for the foreseeable future.

To learn more about the details of product discovery and the feasibility of implementing leading Search and Discovery techniques to achieve your business goals, contact our knowledgeable team of experts at Algolia.

About the author
Catherine Dee

Search and Discovery writer

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