It pays to pay attention to the leading Internet innovators, and for years NECX.com has been one.
The b-to-b electronic component vendor was one of the first to introduce full-fledged e-commerce personalization and the idea of a multiple supplier marketplace. Now, it is turning to search engines as its next competitive edge.
NECX.com confirmed it is using Vality Technology Inc.'s Integrity search engine content management architecture and Ardent DataStage from database vendor Informix to make its 3.7 million electronic components from 8,500 vendors easy to find. Instead of relying on exact word matches to pull products up for buyers, NECX.com is creating a directory that accounts for misspelled words, weird descriptions and obscure part numbers.
The NECX.com project is significant because it could be a sign of the times. As marketplaces in other industries grow, they'll all be faced with the challenge of normalizing descriptions from multiple suppliers for different buyers. The quality of the search-engine infrastructure could make or break some e-marketplaces down the road, experts said.
"There will be a competitive advantage for a few years, and then everyone will have it," said Robert Kramich, NECX.com's VP-marketing. "We've replaced an internally developed system with a Ferrari engine that allows us to do fuzzy searches or `things that look like this, or sound like that.' You don't have to know exactly what you're looking for to find it."
Installed since June, the NECX.com search engine requires a significant investment from marketing, Kramich said.
If a buyer's search doesn't return satisfactory results on the first try, any one of 18 dedicated NECX.com product marketing managers are charged with running down the problem and structuring relationships manually within the software. While it's labor-intensive, each intervention is recorded in perpetuity, meaning that its database gets stronger day by day, Kramich said.
"It takes commitment to do this," Kramich said. "If you play it halfway, you can get burned quickly."
Vality CEO Mark Atkins said his company's software is entral in any marketplace equation.
"Merchants and marketplaces must rise to the challenge of maintaining current, correct product information," he said. "NECX.com's decision to undergo data quality initiatives is one for CIOs and exchange executives to emulate."
Other choices exist. AltaVista Business Solutions, Saqqara Systems Inc., Oracle Corp. and Requisite Technology Inc. are among catalog vendors with advanced searching systems, said Stephen Hendrick, VP-application development tools for research company IDC.
It will be the challenge of marketing and e-commerce executives to come up with exactly the right search engine platform, as well as effective business processes to feed those engines a healthy diet of new information, Hendrick said.
"There's a fair amount of rocket science involved in these products," Hendrick said. "Almost every corporation must vest someone with responsibility for coming up with taxonomy that's effective on the Web. The problem is there's a lot of legacy taxonomy already in place. I hate to go to a new grocery store because I don't know where everything is. That's similar to the problems here. You have to ease people into it."
Find it faster
Onlinesuppliers.com didn't have the luxury of easing suppliers and buyers into a new way of finding things; it had to be willing to shove a little, said Brett Andrews, VP-sales and marketing for the government-buying portal.
In building a marketplace that lists 90,000 products and 70 different service categories, the Internet start-up found it necessary to tweak descriptions that some government types had used for years. It relied on computing horsepower to prevent buyers from stubborn avoidance of its new way of doing business, Andrews said. Search engine technology accounted for a substantial portion of the $4 million spent building the Onlinesuppliers.com portal, Andrews said.
"When you have that many products and services in a mall, you are going to have a lot of searches going on at any given time," Andrews said. "And they aren't just searching for one product, but products from three to four different companies. Some sort of normalization had to take place. We had to make some changes. But the trade-off is that our site does searches in seconds, where it used to take 10 to 15 minutes [using an old mainframe system]. It is that much faster."