Guess CIO Buries Weak Search Engine

News Analysis: The CIO for billion-dollar clothing retailer Guess had a customer satisfaction challenge. He knew the company's search engine was delivering terrible results and that it would take many months to replace.

Even CIOs at billion-dollar retailers have to put their jeans on one upgrade at a time. But Guess CIO Michael Relich found himself in an especially difficult position when Web analytics told him that 60 percent of his e-commerce sites search results were delivering "not found" responses to prospects.

Guess site search was a legacy search and it didnt have any natural language processing, so typos and searches for reasonable terms—such as "jeans"—often delivered no results because the prospect hadnt typed in the exact brand name.

"Before, our search was just a standard SQL Server on our database," Relich said. "Unless the customer put in the exact terms in the exactly right way, a whole lot of not founds came back. Search is a good thing if youre doing it right."

The Los Angeles-based company quickly decided to replace its system with an enterprise search system and started evaluating vendors.

But Relichs team then had a classic IT problem: What to do with the poorly performing search function for the six months or so it would take to have a new system selected, installed, tested and launched?

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If the old system continued, customers could get frustrated with bad results and abandon the site, think poorly of Guess and shop elsewhere. If Relich removed the search function, customer service personnel and other Guess employees and partners would be deprived of a powerful tool, presuming they knew exactly what they were looking for.

Relichs decision: Keep the search active on the site, but hide it until its working properly.

Nirbhay Gupta, the Guess senior E-commerce manager, said his team "hid" the search engine by placing it on the screen "lower bottom, where it was just one of the links."

How important was the search for customers? Gupta reported that shortly after the search engine was replaced and relaunched in its former prominent placement, purchase conversions increased eightfold.

The system Guess switched to came from Mercado Software, which provided an outsourced hosted option. Bryan Surles, Mercados director of sales engineering, in Pleasanton, Calif., said hiding the search capability for an e-commerce site is a risky strategy, but having a malfunctioning search isnt much better.

"Hiding your search box? Thats ridiculous. Youre losing money," Surles said. "Youre forcing people to use navigation as a strategy. Search is paramount. Customers expect to be able to use search on the site. Otherwise, customers will leave."

E-commerce analyst Tamara Mendelsohn, with Forrester Research, based in Cambridge, Mass., said Guess was in a difficult position where there was likely no ideal move. That said, she, too, agreed that an e-commerce search function is considered so essential today that removing it might be unwise.

"Customers are more likely to forgive a minorly frustrating experience—like typing in jeans and not getting any results—than having no [search] at all," Mendelsohn said. But if the results were as bad as 60 percent "nothing found," its really a no-win situation, she said.

"Youre going to have to choose the lesser of two evils. Customers [who get a lot of "nothing found" replies] are going to get frustrated and so aggravated with the site that they dont come back," she said, adding that Guess probably struck the right balance. "It makes some sense. I would have said, Fix it and fix it now, but theres always the question of what to do in the interim."

Greg Buzek, a retail technology analyst and the president of the IHL Consulting Group, in Franklin, Tenn., said Guess predicament is becoming more common. "You can increase customer service or you can do things that frustrate customer experiences," Buzek said. "What Guess is doing is theyre trying to eliminate the frustrations."

Buzek said he would have counseled removing the search entirely until it worked properly, but he added that its difficult to make that decision. "By making search hard to find, in essence, they lowered the customer service or at least the perception of customer service," he said.

Next Page: Guess got an unexpected bonus: a 60 percent server load reduction.