PODCAST

Relevance Rules: Q&A With Powerset GM Scott Prevost

The Internet search market is dominated by Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft Live Search. However, there are also a range of niche players that focus on areas such as travel and health.

Those observations, according to Scott Prevost, General Manager of Powerset, a semantic-based search engine company headquartered in San Francisco.

Powerset now operates as a subsidiary of Microsoft after recently being acquired for about US$100 million.

Prevost joined us to provide an inside peek into the competitive world of search engines.


Listen to the podcast. (17:52 minutes)


Shifting Model

When it comes to search revenue streams, Prevost believes that ads will continue to dominate for some time. However, the ad model could change as search moves to other devices.

Prevost also believes that mobile devices will offer entirely new ways of interacting that will significantly impact the search industry.

Semantic search technology helps a search engine determine what users intend when typing in their search terms and offers significant opportunities for growth in the market, Prevost said.

True Meaning

In the near future, semantic technology will become the dominant player in text-based searching, he predicts.

The video search sector is growing as well, he said. However, users need the ability to search within video content to make it more useful.

Here are some excerpts of the interview:

E-Commerce Times: Can you give the listeners an overall feel for what the current status of what the search engine industry looks like right now?

Scott Prevost:

Of course there are the big players — Google, Yahoo and Live — but I think what surprised me when I got into this business a few years ago is how many companies there were that are trying to make a difference, and Powerset is certainly one of those companies, and in particular Powerset falls into a class of companies that’s working on semantic search. Some of the other companies that are trying to do that are Hakia and Cognition, a few other smaller companies. But certainly the market is dominated today by the big players in terms of market share.

ECT: In terms of revenue streams, obviously you always hear about advertising as a big revenue stream in search. Are there other revenue streams that we don’t hear about as much that are important or growing for search engines?

SP:

Well, certainly advertising is the one where everyone has focused on, and certainly Google has made many, many inroads. But I think as we move onto other devices, onto mobile devices, the whole ad model could change significantly. And as we start to see new technologies that are better at matching the user’s intent to the advertisers, I think we’ll also see many changes there as well. So I think the industry will continue to be driven by advertising for the foreseeable future, but it may mean different things in a few years.

ECT: Do you see any other revenue streams that might be emerging in the next two, three, four years?

SP:

I think over the next two years or so, it’s really going to be advertising-based. There is some potential, I think, that the way we interact with those ads could change significantly, and a lot of traffic may be driven through mobile devices.

ECT: Speaking of mobile, obviously search is in its very early stage with mobile. What do you see the potential there being?

SP:

I think there’s tremendous potential there, because mobile travels with us everywhere. We have information needs everywhere we go. There are whole new ways of interacting that we use with mobile — touchscreens, voice — that will impact search significantly. It will put more of a focus on things like local search, maybe even more of a focus on things like discovery tasks.

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CRM Buyer Channels

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AI-Powered Search Turns E-Commerce Queries Into Conversions

It’s a common refrain from both technologists and laypeople alike, but the past two years have reshaped the digital landscape. While many people are probably a bit tired of hearing this phrase — and other similar phrases — it is particularly important for companies with e-commerce platforms.

There are many ways companies can stay relevant as we enter a new era of e-commerce. It is safe to say that all e-commerce platforms should feature trendy product offerings, crawlable and mobile-friendly site architecture, and ensuring round-the-clock customer service. But above all else, having a strong on-site search could be one of the biggest factors in retaining customers and boosting revenue.

A good on-site search function can quickly steer a consumer to their desired destination based on a few simple keywords. More and more retailers are rethinking their current platforms as they strive to increase revenue and brand awareness.

Pleasing Uncompromising Consumers

Online shoppers are not only tech-savvy, but they know what they want. They prefer personalized and relevant results returned the first time they enter a query. Site search is one of the best tools to accommodate a fast-paced consumer, as it helps companies generate millions in additional revenue and makes consumers 1.8 times more likely to convert.

Sadly, as many have come to find, developing and maintaining a strong on-site search feature is much easier said than done.

The average on-site search engine has a difficult time interpreting ambiguous search terms, correcting misspellings and interpreting user errors. A 2021 study shows that 94 percent of consumers globally received irrelevant results while searching on a retailer’s website in the last six months, and 85 percent said they developed a poor impression of the brand after poor search results.

A poor on-site search experience can quickly lead to a customer abandoning a website. Site abandonment is a huge issue, as it collectively costs retailers in the United States more than $300 billion a year, according to research by The Harris Poll.

AI to the Rescue

This is where artificial intelligence (AI) comes into play. More and more companies are beginning to use AI in their search practices. Machine learning can leverage data such as clicks, add-to-cart, signups, conversions, and purchases to improve search result ranking as well as relevance.

For example, if the search term “iPhone” leads to 20 different results but the only ones being viewed are results number six and eight, then AI will know to push those two products to the top of the search results.

Even as consumer trends change over time, AI will continually adjust search results based on previous sales, as well as a consumer’s profile. This is similar to how Google improves search results over time — more relevant results get pushed up to the top.

Over the past 20 years, companies like Google and Amazon have built teams of thousands of data scientists and search engineers to design incredible AI capabilities. Both companies designed their AI capabilities against huge datasets with millions of users.

Most companies don’t have the resources to build their own in-house expertise, nor do they have the same traffic on which to hone their AI algorithms. Fortunately, emerging site search solution providers can offer very powerful on-site search for more typical e-commerce use cases.

While ranking and organizing search results can be done manually with traditional search engines, AI is far more accurate and requires much less effort. AI models can interpret the context of the website and consumer, which will provide accurate results almost instantly. Even if a user misspells a keyword or queries an irrelevant search term, an AI-powered search engine will be able to still be able to deliver relevant results.

Personalization Powered by AI

When search relevance and ranking are operating at a high standard, a high level of personalization can be achieved.

Personalization is one of the additional benefits some AI-powered search engines are able to offer. Eighty-three percent of consumers expect some level of personalization in their shopping experience, which means they expect a digital journey that is catered to their needs and past shopping behavior.

AI-powered search can provide personalized results and recommendations, which can increase average order size and provide greater user satisfaction. For example, if you know a customer has purchased an iPhone in the past or is browsing your site on an iOS device, you can personalize results on a search for “headphones” or “phone case” with Apple-related products.

The more data the better for AI-powered search to give smart product recommendations. It can include past purchase behavior, recent searches, profile attributes (such as gender), or browser-based IP attributes such as location.

Vector-Based Results

Another exciting component of AI-powered search is vector-based search results.

Vectors have been around for a while, but they are slower than keyword-based search and never took off. That’s changing, however, as new technologies come online. Vectors eliminate the need for companies to create and manage synonyms and can assist with longtail searches, symptom-based searches, and more.

Take a simple example like a jacket, which is sometimes called a coat, parka, or pullover. Traditionally, online retailers have had to create synonyms or add tags or other metadata so that visitors can find what they want regardless of the keywords they’re using. With vector-based technology, that becomes a thing of the past.

Conclusion

Without AI, companies must do an extraordinary amount of work to ensure their search engines are performing to a high standard. Most search engines operate based on manually written search rules and algorithms. Rules need to be constantly updated to make a search engine run to its fullest potential. Not to mention this approach often leads to inaccurate results.

These days, Google and Amazon dominate the online shopping market — this is because they are able to hire tens of thousands of data scientists and search engineers that can sell and distribute industry-leading products in an unprecedented rate.

AI-powered search gives retailers a stronger platform to compete with global marketplaces as they bolster their search practices.

Joe Ayyoub

Joe Ayyoub is chief revenue officer at Search.io. Prior to Search.io, Joe served as chief customer officer at ZineOne. Before that, he was senior vice president of customer experience and partnerships at Unbxd and head of global support operations at Magento Commerce (acquired by Adobe).

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Amazon Celebrates SMB Sellers’ Successes, Introduces New Tools at Virtual Event

Amazon heralded its shifting strategies to help sellers expand with new tools during its two-day Accelerate Seller Conference this week.

The e-commerce giant announced its growing success with American small and medium-sized businesses empowerment this year, its glowing Sellers Report, and the results of its unique CRM tools for SMBs.

In the 12 months ending Aug. 31, the number of American SMB sellers on Amazon who surpassed $1 million in sales grew by nearly 15 percent.

Amazon’s 2021 Small Business Empowerment Report outlined how the company provides opportunity, tools, and services to help more than 500,000 third-party selling partners in the U.S. reach hundreds of millions of customers, increase revenue and profits, and create good jobs across America.

The report set a strong welcoming greeting for thousands of U.S. sellers remotely attending the Amazon Accelerate 2021 virtual conference for sellers Oct. 20-21. The second annual conference featured new product and service announcements, seller presentations, and more than 30 sessions providing insights and strategies for current and aspiring entrepreneurs.

“Over 20 years ago, we made the decision to open our store’s virtual shelves to third-party sellers. At the time, big-box retailers had been pushing small businesses out of the retail market,” said Dave Clark, CEO of Amazon Worldwide Consumer.

Amazon bet that bringing selling partners into its digital marketplace would be a win for customers who want vast product selection, low prices, and fast delivery.

“But it would also be a win for small businesses that want to reach more customers, increase their revenue and profits, and create good jobs. It proved to be a great bet,” he added.

Support for Local Sellers

Two of the most significant new marketing tools for sellers Amazon announced are Product Opportunity Explorer and Local Selling Opportunity, according to Dave Nadel, director of selling partner trust at Amazon.

The Explorer tool allows sellers to use customer data from Amazon to identify opportunities for new products that have unmet demand in the store. Product Opportunity Explorer is in beta testing now. Amazon plans to make the tool available to all sellers in 2022. The tool is available at no charge in Seller Central, Amazon’s online business management resource for sellers.

The Local Selling Opportunity enables merchants not only to sell to Amazon’s customers across the globe but to also engage with their local communities. That option lets local merchants target customers near the sellers’ stores in town or in the region. It enables new products and services to be offered and lets folks shop locally, within their community.

“For example, they can bundle services like installation along with their products, but it’s in addition to kind of their broader nationwide online sales. It gives customers a way to support local businesses, and it gives sellers a way to offer products that they couldn’t offer before such as larger fragile items,” Nadel told the E-commerce Times.

A second part of this new local sellers support program is an option to buy online and pick up in the store. That allows a customer to complete a transaction online on Amazon and then go to their local store and pick it up and get it the same day, he added.

Empowering SMBs

The 2021 Small Business Empowerment Report Amazon released for the seller conference details how Amazon provides small business owners, startups, and entrepreneurs with support, tools, and opportunities to sell their products online. It also addresses how to scale their business, build their brand, and create economic impact.

More data from the 12 months ending Aug. 31, 2021 revealed that sellers posted impressive results in a climate marred by pandemic restrictions and supply chain problems. The major accomplishments by U.S. sellers include:

  • More than 3.8 billion products were sold, averaging 7,400 every minute
  • Average more than $200,000 in sales, up YoY from approximately $170,000
  • Nearly $2.2 billion in international export sales, up from nearly $1.5 billion YoY

In 2020, Amazon invested more than $18 billion in selling partner success to help sellers quickly launch their businesses in Amazon’s store, scale to reach more customers, and build their brands. That investment included launching new tools and services, along with more than 24,000 employees focused on supporting sellers across the company.

“We had to invent new ways to make sure we can continue to invent on behalf of sellers and customers alike. But in terms of sellers, I would say their struggles with the pandemic have been in a number of areas, with the primary one being the supply chain,” noted Nadel.

The gaps in that process made it hard for some sellers to keep up. But that said, we have seen throughout the pandemic that sellers and small businesses are thriving online — and we see sales up, he observed.

“When Covid hit, BlueZone was forced to temporarily close all of its physical stores and downsize from 75 employees to 12,” said Kyle Robertson, director of marketing for BlueZone Sports. “After going all-in on Amazon in April 2020, BlueZone now has more employees and more brick-and-mortar locations than we did pre-pandemic thanks to growth on Amazon.”

Third-Party Seller Growth

Amazon’s 2021 Small Business Empowerment Report reveals third-party sellers created more than 1.8 million U.S. jobs. Amazon’s new sales tool supports those sellers by helping them identify opportunities to launch new, high-potential products.

It takes the guesswork out of identifying which products to launch. It provides sellers with rich insights into what customers are searching for, clicking on, and buying, as well as not buying.

Amazon has a long track record of inventing for sellers. The Explorer tool is the company’s latest innovation that provides insights for bringing new products to market faster and more efficiently, explained Ben Hartman, vice president of North America Selling Partner Services at Amazon.

“It is another example of how we empower small businesses and entrepreneurs by providing them with powerful capabilities to reach more customers and grow,” he said.

Silver Onyx built its business on Amazon with a growth strategy based on increasing the number of products offered, according to John Broadbent, Silver Onyx’s CEO. The digital store has seven brands in Amazon’s store.

“Product Opportunity Explorer will give us data and recommendations specifically relevant to our business, fueling our ability to develop and offer dozens of new products to our brand portfolio this year, such as successful new additions to our Nature’s Nutrition line,” he said.

Amazon offers a range of tools and services to help sellers launch new products. When sellers identify new products they want to launch on its marketplace platform, they can use Fulfillment by Amazon’s New Selection program that offers benefits on storage and advertising costs to help them accelerate their early sales.

Sellers enrolled in Brand Registry can use Amazon Vine to help them build a foundation of insightful customer reviews on their new selection for as little as $200 per enrolled product. On average, brands have found Amazon Vine helped grow their initial product sales by more than 15 percent, according to Amazon.

Search Analytics Tool Added to Arsenal

Amazon also announced the Search Analytics Dashboard to help sellers derive insights from the search performance of their products. It provides sellers with anonymized data to better understand customers’ interests and shopping choices for their products.

The dashboard supplies sellers with information to optimize their listings, inform inventory planning, and plan their product development roadmap. Sellers can grow their business both on and off Amazon, offered Srikanth Thirumalai, vice president of search at Amazon.

“We are excited about what these insights will do for sellers, and we look forward to their feedback as we identify new ways to partner with them and improve the shopping and selling experience together,” he said.

The Search Analytics Dashboard will be available in the U.S. in early 2022. The tool will be provided at no charge to Amazon sellers who are enrolled in Amazon Brand Registry.

Search term data will make it possible for VitaCup to identify high-performing keywords for its products. The company can use that information to fine-tune its marketing and product development strategies, said Jason Mclellan, director at VitaCup, a seller participating in the products’ development.

“The information has already helped us identify a new product to develop and a product category where we’re building traction,” he added.

Jack M. Germain

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

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