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Walmart
Walmart's New Secret Weapon: Search

By Jennifer LeClaire
September 2, 2012 9:41AM

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"I don't think it will have much of an impact on rival Amazon," said analyst Greg Sterling of Walmart's new search engine. "Although Walmart is the largest retailer in the world, its brand is very weak in certain markets. To really go head to head with Amazon in e-commerce, the company would need to build a new online-only shopping engine."
 



In an apparent move to compete against online retail behemoth Amazon.com, Walmart.com has rolled out a new search engine that it hopes will make it easier for customers to find what they are looking for in a hurry.

The new search engine was built from the ground up by @WalmartLabs, the research and technology hub for innovation at Walmart. The search engine taps semantic search technology to anticipate a shopper's search intent to deliver more relevant results.

Dubbed Polaris, Walmart's search tech seems to be working well. Walmart.com is already reporting a 10 percent to 15 percent boost in shoppers completing a purchase after searching for a product using the new search engine.

Competing with Amazon?

"With Polaris, we are giving users the ability to connect with the items they want but also surface items based on their interests and likely intent," said Sri Subramaniam, vice president for @WalmartLabs and head of the Polaris initiative. "This is the start of what we imagine search to be as we continue to deliver products to accelerate Walmart's global e-commerce efforts."

A small team within @WalmartLabs completed Polaris in just 10 months. The group includes experts in information retrieval, machine learning and text mining with experience from top search and e-commerce companies and renowned research institutions. Polaris is also used for mobile search.

Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Research, said if the new search functionality works as well as the retailing giant claims, it will boost e-commerce through Walmart.com.

"However, I don't think it will have much of an impact on rival Amazon. Although Walmart is the largest retailer in the world its brand is very weak in certain markets and market segments," Sterling told us. "To really go head to head with Amazon in e-commerce, the company would need to build a new online-only shopping engine, which would be extremely difficult."

How Polaris Works

Recognizing that searching for a shopping result is very different from conducting a general search, Polaris is based on the Social Genome project, a platform that connects people to places and events.

Here's how it works: The new search engine uses advanced algorithms including query understanding and synonym mining to glean user intent in delivering results. When a user types in the word "denim," it returns results on jeans, or "chlorine tablets" returns results related to pool equipment.

Polaris also focuses on engagement understanding, which takes into account how a user is behaving with the site to serve up the best results. It delivers a new and intuitive results page when browsing for topics instead of giving a standard list of search results allowing shoppers to discover new items they may not have considered.

When a user types in "patio furniture," for example, they get a colorful page with multiple patio set options for the back yard along with a banner showing featured items on sale.
 

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