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Why Amazon Succeeds–And Why It Won’t Help You

by Jared M. Spool
on June 20, 2002

Amazon is one of the best on-site search capabilities we’ve ever seen. But surprisingly,
the reason why it works so well is likely to be the same reason why Search won’t work
well on your site.

Do you want to read The Maltese Falcon? Type it into the search engine and
Amazon instantly presents you with Dashiell Hammett’s classic novel. Do you
want to listen to Britney Spears? (After all, somebody must!) Type it in and
you’re looking at her latest albums. (Interestingly, when we just tried it,
Amazon also suggested we purchase a set of headphones. What should we read
into that?)

Based on just these types of searches, one might assume Amazon works almost
100% of the time. In fact, that’s a comment we hear often when we talk about
our research into how Search works. People are always telling us that it’s
not the fault of Search because, after all, Amazon works every time they try

Amazon’s books, CD’s, DVD’s, and videos work well because the content is what
we call "Uniquely Identified." Users can easily search uniquely identified
content because they know what they are looking for.

For example, people identify books by title and author. They identify CDs
by artist, title, label, and songs. Almost every time we watched someone shop
for a book or CD on Amazon, they typed in one of these identifiers.

For instance, when shopping for a book, one user typed in "Sum of All
Fears" and Amazon returned seven different editions. Amazon didn’t suggest
any other books with "Sum" or "Fear" — just seven editions
of that one book.

When users search the uniquely identified content and those users know what
those identifiers are, then Search works very precisely. In a study we conducted
with 35 online shoppers, Search returned useful results 99% of the time for
CD’s and videos. However, for non-uniquely-identified content, such as toys,
apparel, or pet supplies, Search only worked 31% of the time.

This is where Amazon starts to get into trouble. In addition to selling books,
they also sell electronics. What did users type in when they were searching
for a DVD player? Well, they didn’t type in "Panasonic DVD-RV31K DVD Player
(Black)" (the product name). They didn’t even try to type in "Panasonic" (the

In our study, when users were shopping for DVD players, they typed in "DVD
player". This is typical for non-uniquely-identified content.

When looking for a pair of Frye boots, one user typed in "boots".
Another user, looking for colored pencils typed in "craft supplies".
Another user, looking for pearl earrings typed in "jewelry". Not
even "earrings", but the very generic "jewelry".

While there are non e-commerce sites that have uniquely-identified content,
they are rare. The US Patent and Trademark office,
for example, allows users to look up trademarks by attributes such as name,
holder of the trademark, and the attorney of record. (Search for "James
Spool" under the attorney of record and you’ll get a peek into Jared’s
father’s work.)

The PTO is the exception, not the rule. It is more likely that the majority
of content on your site will fall into the non-uniquely identified category.

Even within uniquely identified content, there are still exceptions when users
want to find something by a means other than the identifiers provided. For
example, we had a user who, having listened to Celtic music every morning on
the radio, wanted to purchase a good introductory CD to the genre. Typing "celtic" into
Amazon’s Search revealed 889 results, with no sense as to which one would be
a good introduction.

You can safely rely on your site’s Search when you meet these three conditions:

(1) Your content is uniquely identified, and
(2) Your users are familiar with the identifiers, and
(3) Your users want to use those identifiers as the mechanism for locating
the content.

However, if you don’t meet any of these conditions, you’ll need to find another
way for them to succeed.

Not sure whether you meet these conditions? Look no further than your search
logs. If you spot a lot of category names, like jewelry or men’s pants, instead
of specific content references, then you should take comfort that your content
is like 90% of the content out there: non-uniquely identified. •

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems. You can follow Jared on Twitter at @jmspool.