2006 Sep 01
Mercado Software Mercado CSN
by David M. Raab
DM News
September, order 2006

Say “search engine”, viagra 40mg and most people think of Internet search sites like Google and Yahoo! But search includes other tasks, such as analyzing document archives, finding customers in a database, and identifying products in a catalog. All draw on similar statistical and language-based techniques for identifying relationships among texts. The really important differences are in the applications which make those techniques usable for a particular purpose.

Mercado CSN (Mercado Software, 888-376-1400, www.mercado.com) searches for products on an ecommerce Web site. It extends beyond returning search results to provide extensive control over what visitors actually see, based on rules defined by site merchandisers. Mercado lacks major portions of ecommerce functionality, including page design, content management, and order processing, so it is not intended as a complete ecommerce platform. Yet, by controlling much of what appears on the screen, it can have a major impact on site results.

The foundation of a Mercado installation is an index file with information about the items to be searched. Mercado can import item information or use its own UniClass technology to extract, standardize and classify item attributes. Like other language-based text engines, UniClass relies on thesauri, taxonomies, and semantic analysis to help interpret the inputs. Mercado provides reference bases for different subject areas, such as automotive, consumer electronics and food. Users can edit or extend these to better fit their particular data.

The index file contains links to the content that will be displayed on the Web page. The content itself is stored and managed outside of Mercado. The index can also include attributes from sources other than product descriptions, such as inventory levels or profit margins from an accounting system. An index file is typically updated in a regular batch process.

Once the relevant information is available in an index, Mercado can use it in many ways. One is to extract lists of categories and present these for users to browse. Another is to accept search words and return a list of results based on exact matches, partial matches, synonyms, value ranges, related terms, and other connections identified through linguistic and category-based methods. The results are ranked using a relevancy score based on several elements. Users can adjust the element weights as needed.

The list of results is transformed by user-defined rules before anything actually shows up on a Web page. Mercado divides each page into several zones and can display different information in each. For example, there can be zones for actual search results, related products, recommendations, best sellers, banner ads, and relevant documents. Each rule specifies which zone it applies to, when it is triggered, and what actions to take. Triggers can be based on search inputs such as particular key word, on the contents of the search results such as a particular category or attribute, or on the nature of the results such as the number of items found. Rules can also be limited to particular customer segments, based on customer identifiers imported from the Web site along with the search input. Mercado can also randomly assign customers to segments for A/B tests. In addition, rules can be limited to a particular department within a Web site, allowing merchandisers for different areas to operate independently.

Rule actions may redirect the user to a different page, such as customer service; generate a banner ad; or modify the result list by adding, excluding or re-ranking its contents. Users define groups of items to change through the same search interface that site visitors see, working in an image of the actual site. This helps to ensure the rule generates the desired results, while avoiding the need to train merchandisers on a special group-building interface. These group definitions only exist within a given rule, however, so groups that apply in multiple cases would best be converted into product attributes.

For organizations where managers must approve changes before they take effect, Mercado can generate an email to notify managers when a proposed new rule is ready and let the managers simulate the rule’s results before putting it into production. This simulation also presents a view of the actual Web site, with an option to select which customer segment is being simulated. Rules can automatically activate and deactivate during specified date and time-of-day ranges.

Management approvals, department-level rule creation, and automatic activation are particularly important to administrators at large, complex organizations. Mercado has additional technical features to support large sites, such as the ability to consolidate searches across multiple data types and servers.

Deployment of Mercado takes a fair amount of technical effort, ranging from three to five weeks at a small site to twenty or more for a major company. Some of the work is modifying the underlying site to generate Web Services requests that send information about each search or browse query to Mercado. The vendor provides a sample application to help users do this. But most of the time is spent revamping the Web site to take advantage of Mercado’s capabilities. This requires adding the different types of page zones and populating these with the XML outputs that Mercado generates in response to each request.

Mercado also produces a range of reports. Most focus on visitor behavior, such as lists of the most common search terms, browse selections, search and browse sequences, frequently viewed items, and query trends. Others are more aimed at helping to administer the system and identify areas for improvement, such as lists of requests that returned few or low-relevance results, most-used business rules, and load statistics. Users can also write custom reports.

Versions of Mercado are available for large consumer retailers, smaller retailers, and business-to-business marketers. The software can be purchased to run in-house under a traditional one-time license fee or can be hosted by Mercado. Pricing for the hosted version starts at around $3,400 per month and is based on query volume. Mercado was founded in 1997 and its software has been purchased by about 70 brands, many of which use it for multiple projects.

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David M. Raab is a Principal at Raab Associates Inc., a consultancy specializing in marketing technology and analytics. He can be reached at draab@raabassociates.com.

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