Search personalization 101: how to capitalize on personalized search and discovery

When you need to find or buy something online, do you want to feel like the company “knows” you? Perhaps suggesting other items that you might like? When you type in a search query, do you like seeing the search engine’s “thoughtful” guesses at what you want?

Some people find this type of guidance a bit alarming; you may even worry that your privacy is being compromised. But if you’re like most Americans, your answers to these questions are a resounding “Yes, yes, and yes.” Which is to be expected, because once you’ve gotten used to—and spoiled by—the experience of web personalization, it’s hard to imagine going back. 

How wonky was unpersonalized web searching in the past? According to a 2018 Internet Retailer report, customers’ main challenge with website search was that they were getting irrelevant search results, or results that were organized in the wrong order. People cited personalized search results as their #1 need. 

Of course, there’s more to the AI-driven realm of personalization than customized search results. It also encompasses the practice of taking careful note of people’s interests and preferences as they’re surfing websites and browsing content, and then applying that knowledge to help them navigate and find what they want.

In its various forms, personalized website (and app) content creation is pretty much all the rage, and it’s here to stay. According to Instapage, 74% of customers find it frustrating when content has not been personalized for them. And a huge majority of consumers, 91%, are “more likely to shop with brands that recognize, remember, and provide them with relevant offers and recommendations,” says Accenture.  

So the ability to glean information about shoppers—for example, through their past searches and browsing history—and then tailor content to their needs, plus anticipate their queries (“predictive search”), obviously has a ton of merits for consumers. But what about for the companies and organizations that implement it on their websites? You guessed it: the prospective benefits of customizing a user’s search experience for companies are just as monumental, and in certain industries, they are transformational and phenomenal for the bottom line.

Let’s take a look at what’s behind the “hand-holding” shopping and browsing experiences being created by personalized search, and how companies can apply this AI wizardry to improve and  optimize their customers’ search experiences, expand their customer bases, increase their revenue, and grow their brands.

What is search personalization?

Thanks to the virtually limitless storage capacity of the Internet, there’s now much more information, and many more products, available and findable online. However, as the mountains of data and volumes of products have proliferated, consumers have found themselves inundated with and overwhelmed by the first-world problem of having “too many choices.”

In the midst of this information explosion, search technology came to the rescue, allowing  people to cut through the mountains of extraneous details and start making a virtual beeline for their desired items. 

In an extensive paper published in 2020, “Search Personalization Using Machine Learning,” the researchers explain that most businesses have been tackling the problem of information overload by using a query-based search model to help people narrow their shopping choices. Unfortunately, however, the ability to let people search sites doesn’t go far enough. And if a searcher doesn’t find what they want fast enough (like in a few milliseconds) and gets overly annoyed, they may jump ship for another site. So the challenge for companies is figuring out how to make search work better for their potential customers.

According to these researchers, you can improve web search in two ways: 

  • Provide a more relevant set of search results
  • Rank the most relevant results higher, or display them earlier while the person is searching, so that they don’t click the wrong results or have to scroll to the bottom of the list to find the right ones

The researchers are partial to the second method: “The optimal ordering of results within a list is an important problem because recent research has shown that position effects have a significant impact on consumers’ click behavior and firm profits (Narayanan and Kalyanam 2015, Ursu 2018),” they say.

The problem is that different query terms mean different things to people searching for them. The researchers cite an example of people entering the query “java” (De Vrieze, 2006). People could be looking for information on coffee, the Java programming language, or a vacation spot, the Java islands. The relevance values of documents are user specific, the researchers note, so rank ordering must be specific to the individual user intent and the search instance.

The solution? Personalized search and discovery. Yes, this growing field has privacy implications and presents some gray-area issues for companies, which makes it an ongoing topic of debate. Still, the potential pay-offs of user-specific search rankings are significant and inarguable. “Personalization of digital services remains the holy grail of marketing,” the researchers conclude. 

How does search personalization work?

Machine learning is the secret sauce of effective personalized search. Based on parameters set by the organization, a search engine algorithm learns about particular users through observing and noting their behavior over time.

The first step in implementing search personalization is gathering user data, which has two phases: deciding which behavior to track and then capturing that behavior by sending events to a software program. Next, the business creates a personalization relevance strategy, which is simulated and tested; and finally, the relevance strategy is moved to production.

Algolia structures search personalization to engage users at a deep level, striving for relevance that minimizes the amount of effort needed for people to find what they want. 

Personalization can also encourage users to stay on a site (or in an app) longer by exposing them to additional potentially attractive options.

 Algolia’s relevance strategy encompasses:

  • Textual relevance, matching functionality that takes into account typo tolerance, synonyms, natural language processing, and more
  • Business-centric relevance that ranks results according to business metrics using custom ranking
  • Merchandising: boosting and burying particular results or categories based on rules

Another tool to consider is dynamic re-ranking, which, based on collective search data from a group of users, such as all shoppers on a site, shows site visitors trending results and categories.

Lastly, a robust personalization strategy wouldn’t be complete without considering recommendations, which, like a personal shopping assistant might do, encourage people to check out other items based on what they’ve shown interest in. (Looking for a pair of jeans? How about this T-shirt to go with them?)

Business benefits of creating personalized search experiences

Many businesses that have put personalization to work on their websites are sold on the concept. Engaged shoppers become loyal customers, which leads to more items being sold, return visits…what’s not to love? 

Statistics bear this out. According to Evergage, 88% of marketers surveyed said their biggest motivator with personalization was to provide a superior customer experience. And almost all of them felt that personalization enhances customer relationships.

Not surprisingly, studies also confirm that personalization typically leads to higher profits: 

Personalization is especially powerful in certain industries

Search personalization is considered a definitive win across industries. It can help not only from a business-growth perspective but with improving user engagement, for example, by increasing readership on a magazine website or improving the efficiency of customer support for a technical product. But in certain industries, it can have an outsized impact.

Here are a few ways that personalization has transformed the playbook in particular industries and types of businesses.

eCommerce: a whole new world created by COVID

When most people think about how ecommerce has recently gone nuts, they think of the impact of COVID-19 forcing shoppers to steer clear of brick-and-mortar stores. The switch to browsing and buying online en masse—both for B2C and B2B shoppers—is looking pretty permanent. Online shopping is hot. People have gotten so comfortable with it that they’re adding items to their shopping carts that they never used to buy online.  

Personalization on a retail website can take many forms, ranging from providing the most relevant search results to supplying on-target recommendations to simply remembering customers’ names and saving their item color and size preferences for the next time they log on.

Many ecommerce sites are ripe for improvement, but some businesses have yet to figure out how to apply search personalization and reap the wide-ranging benefits, including improved conversion and higher user satisfaction rates. According to a Forrester survey of digital-experience deliverers, 53% say they’re lacking the technology they need to personalize web experiences for their users. 

Algolia estimates that ecommerce companies can increase their conversions 30% by providing an exceptional user experience. One approach is following ecommerce personalization best practices to substantively reflect each individual’s shopping needs and preferences. You can test what you do to see if it works and then fine-tune to get your strategy just right.

Marketplace sites: taking ecommerce up a notch

When it comes to applying search personalization for improving the shopping experience on an entire marketplace site, which is akin to a brick-and-mortar mall with separate stores (think Etsy), things can get a little more complex. A marketplace-oriented search engine must be able to expertly handle advanced search and browse scenarios such as dynamic faceting, content carousels, autocomplete drop-downs, and federated search

A major benefit of setting up personalization on a marketplace site is being able to free up your engineering team and business teams to focus on what they do best, instead of getting bogged down in the technical aspects of implementing and maintaining an effective solution.

Here are a few marketplace sites that have discovered just how beneficial and lucrative personalization can be:

  • Amazon.com uses merchandised content carousels to create an extensive online “department store” look, calling out categories such as popular deals, holiday decor, sporting goods, and last-minute deals.
  • Visitors to the Houzz marketplace website typically don’t realize all the shopping and content-discovery possibilities they have, so the search bar proactively provides multiple options, including “Discover design ideas,” “Shop products,” and “Suggest pros for me.”
  • If you’ve shopped the Etsy marketplace, you can see how successful the site has been with applying personalization to re-engage customers each time they set virtual foot in the “lobby.” Based on people’s recent searching, browsing, and buying activity, Etsy showers them with sure-to-entice product and shop recommendations, even items from relatively local sellers (within their state). 

Media sites and apps: keeping up with new releases and events

People are continually seeking all kinds of media content online—news, live-streamed or taped sporting events, cultural events such as dance presentations and concerts, songs, movies, videos. And they expect that the most relevant, freshest content will be available to them in real time, in an instant, regardless of their physical location and the time of day.

This means personalization on media sites and apps is every bit as critical as it is for  ecommerce and marketplace applications. Media site and app personalization gives users content that reflects what they’re most likely to be interested in watching, listening to, or reading on their device of choice. Personalized recommendations and other tools can keep news and entertainment junkies coming back to see what else they could enjoy on their device of choice.

SaaS: Empowering support and business teams

Companies in the software-as-a-service (SaaS) world can put personalization to work in a uniquely important way: by giving their customer-support and business teams quick access to material they’ve accessed and engaged with the most often, as well as information that’s tailored to their roles (for example, a tech support rep vs. a salesperson). With the right details at their fingertips, company reps can improve their efficiency at enlightening users and prospective customers who need guidance. Better yet (or perhaps in addition), people seeking help can have their questions proactively answered so that they can potentially resolve their own issues, saving time and taking pressure off of the support folks.

Enterprise and workplace site personalization: improving efficiency

Externally facing sites are the obvious “needs improvement” targets when it comes to the perceived need for personalization, but don’t discount what personalization can do to enhance enterprise-level search and  improve enterprise workplace search efficiency

Consider workplace search. Large organizations typically have a bunch of disparate silos: content repositories, domains, and platforms housing various functions, such as an HR portal, a tech-support ticket system, and a document database. 

Personalizing workplace search could mean using features such as custom ranking, dynamic re-ranking, and query search suggestions to better meet employees’ information needs. You can also personalize search results based on what employees enter in the search bar, as well as optimize the results presented to certain worker groups, tailoring what’s returned to, for instance, a marketing communications team. 

The personal is powerful

That wraps up our quick guide to how search personalization works. 

This evolving technology will remain a hot topic for as long as companies continue to realize that they can optimize for personal preferences in order to improve conversion

If you’re ready to start tapping into the rewards of personalizing your web experience, now is a great time to get aboard. For expert help creating a personalization strategy that’s tailored to your customers’ unique online needs, contact us at Algolia today.

About the authorCatherine Dee

Catherine Dee

Search and Discovery writer

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