Using search to find (or not) what you sell

I'm sure you've been in the same situation. You go to a shop and see something you would like to buy. For whatever reason, you don't buy it at that moment, but when you come home you look up the same item on the store website. The surprise is that you cannot find a product that you saw with your own eyes in that shop just a few hours earlier.

How can this be? Perhaps the shop doesn't make all their products available in their online store. But since the product is on sale, you would think it reasonable to describe it on the website and state it is available in-store.

But it gets worse. In my experience last weekend, I was trying to buy floor paint. It turned out the online store didn't have the floorpaint for sale although the physical store did. That's a pain, but not too much of a problem. Yet the worst thing was, I couldn't be sure if the product was on the site or not, because their searching was so appalling.

I haven't mentioned the retailer because the example is commonplace. We have the world's most sophisticated search tools and yet we cannot find out clearly if the website sells an item or not!

The exact details are these. My search for "floor paint" resulted in 4247 hits, which happen to be all the paint products sold by the store. I knew this because of a helpful statement by the website of what it had found:

4247 products in "Paint".

The site then listed all the various types of paint with the total number of hits for each category. "Floor paint" was duly listed, with 4 hits.

Hang on! I searched for "floor paint" and the system has 4 items tagged as "floor paint". So why did I get 4247 hits? What makes it all the more tantalising is that the system has tagged some articles “floor paint” and so it shouldn’t be difficult to retrieve only those items.

My hypothesis is the store believes in the outdated "more hits are better" approach. The customer must always find something, reasons the store, and more hits are better than fewer hits (remember those wonderful days when Google told you dramatically it had found 1.5 million hits for your search? That must be good!). So the store reasons, let's expand the user search to search for all paints. Then we will be sure to include what they want.

Well, 4247 hits is 4243 hits more than I wanted. And when I got to the 4 hits that really were for floor paint, the floor paint I had seen was not one of them.

What's my conclusion? Providing too many hits is almost as bad as providing too few. If you are going to set up a retail website, why waste the money in providing search if the search doesn’t’ give accurate results?

Websites where you cannot search accurately make me lose patience. The website loses credibility. Plus, if the store offers something on the shelves, it ought to be listed (even if not available for sale) on the store website.