One trend I've noticed on a few enterprise software sites is the use of rich autocomplete in search results, although I haven't seen it on other retail categories.
For example, Dell.com uses a simple autocomplete feature in its search box.
Autocomplete is helpful to the customer because it prevents errors from misspellings or synonyms the search engine doesn't support (and the dreaded "0 results found"). For example, I may be thinking "USB stick" and when I type USB into the search box I see "USB flash drive" suggested as I type, so I select that (which as it turns out delivers much more relevant results than a search for "stick.")
With rich autocomplete, the retailer can include thumbnail images, prices, value propositions, special offers etc. Check out these examples:
Because the brain recognizes and interprets images faster than text, showing thumbnails of Final Cut Pro software for quick scanning is better than a list of text links. Apple has also included persuasive pricing information "Just $199" and "From $999."
Though Apple tries to sneak in calls-to-click unrelated to "Final Cut Pro" like the App Store and the Snow Leopard operating system, these options disappear as the customer continues to type characters in the box (from "Fi" to "Final" for example).
I like how Apple has chunked out its category menus. This can be helpful when the customer is looking for a product that may have results in many categories. For example, the retailer carries a software product and books on the subject. Chunking out the results is like filtered navigation for the search box.
Product results include easy-to-recognize thumbnails for product results, with sub-links for each product, like "Buy Now," "Try Now" and "Get Support." This really serves the "hunter" customer -- the one who knows exactly what they want and doesn't want to fiddle with menu navigation. Rather than loading up a product page and searching for the link to "Try Now" or navigating to the Support section and searching for the product, you can jump directly to the content you want from the search box, and only after typing in 2 characters!
Adobe also chunks its results into product results and supporting educational content related to the product. (It's unfortunate how many retailers do NOT include not include essential documents like buying guides and customer service policies in their site search index).
The simplest of the 3, Microsoft shows thumbnails and smartly promotes its bundles first:
An interesting approach I'd like to see is autocomplete that chunks out the top rated, the top seller, the lowest price and the newest arrival. Each option will appeal to a different buyer personality type. Just don't forget a "view all results" link for folks who want to see all you have to offer.
Just the beginning?
Though currently found on only a handful of sites, I'm expecting to see rich autocomplete take off as a feature for best of breed retail sites. I look forward to seeing more innovative approaches to creative and strategic merchandising in both site search and navigation menus.