Walmart’s Homegrown Search Engine Already Paying Dividends

Walmart has built a search engine from scratch that’s designed to help consumers find what they are looking for much faster.

The technology, built by the company’s San Bruno, Calif., office, was designed over the past 10 months by 15 engineers, and is replacing Endeca, a third-party search engine acquired by Oracle.

Walmart’s move to managing its own search in-house mimics the behavior of other online retailers, like eBay and Amazon, rather than its conventional brick-and-mortar peers. Online merchants are always fine-tuning the search experience, based on the logic that sales will increase if consumers can find what they are looking for.

Since implementing the new search technology three months ago, Sri Subramaniam, VP for @WalmartLabs, said that has already proven to be true — Walmart has seen a 10 percent to 15 percent lift in sales.

The team named the search engine “Polaris,” after the North Star, the brightest star in Ursa Minor, because it is the group’s guiding light for where they want to go with the site’s capabilities.

One problem Subramaniam said that Walmart faced — one that neither Amazon or eBay have to deal with — is having fewer items in its inventory. That may sound counterintuitive, given Walmart’s reputation as a mega retailer, but clearly, online retailers have a limitless catalog that would never be able to fit into a Walmart storefront.

“We have fewer items than Amazon and eBay,” Subramaniam said. “So the search has to work much harder at matching.”

He provided a few examples of how things have changed:

  • Before, a search for “house” would have returned results for a doghouse or a dollhouse. Now, search items also include the hit TV series.
  • Before, when users searched for “flat,” flat-screen TVs came first. Now, it also includes women’s shoes, or “flats.”
  • Before, a search for “garden furniture” would return a ton of links to lawn chairs, tables and other backyard products. Now, Walmart will return a topic page that enables users to browse items by topic area. It also highlights items for sale.
  • Before, a search for “chlorine tablets” might have returned results for the mobile device. Now it also shows pool equipment.

The new search engine technology has rolled out to both the Web site and mobile site in the U.S. Walmart is now planning to roll out internationally to Brazil and other countries. @WalmartLabs was created in part by the $300 million acquisition of Kosmix, a data company based in Mountain View, Calif.


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