The Challenge: With digital data doubling each year and the number of available Web pages spiraling upward, helping investors find the information they seek online to make informed investment decisions is no easy task. It takes a blend of good navigation and powerful search tools.
When Mike Quinn needed to add a search engine to online broker Quick & Reilly's Web site, he killed two birds with one stone. He adopted a search engine from Cambridge, Mass.-based Endeca Technologies that combines advanced search tools with "guided navigation," which helps Web surfers cut through the clutter and drill into relevant information, the vendor says. But first, he had to integrate the firm's data.
Quinn, managing director of electronic brokerage at Quick & Reilly, a FleetBoston Financial company that was recently acquired by Bank of America, says, "The problem is, we had multiple sources of data - internal data, proprietary data and third-party vendor data." He says that became a challenge when the firm tried to present the data in a "contextual fashion to the end-user."
The hurdle for investors, one which Quinn says is common among all online brokerage firms, is finding the relevant information they need, whether it's for financial planning, investing or trading.
"Information overload is certainly a challenge for investors," agrees Wayne Ferbert, vice president of product development at online broker Ameritrade. "The key is making sure that the data the client needs to make a decision is only a couple of clicks away," he says.
Ferbert notes that brokerage firms share many of the same data providers, and as much as 80 percent of the content on a site could be available on someone else's site. "It's a challenge to take the content and position it on a site in a way that's different from [that of] your competitors."
While best practices dictate that a firm structure its site so that the information is only a click or two away, the reality is that it will still need search tools to help people traverse the site. "Search is going to be a very hot thing," says Miranda Mizen, a former analyst with TowerGroup [see story, page 81]. "There's so much data available, how do you make sense out of the noise?" she asks. "The easiest thing to do is filter it out, unless it's relevant." That's where search-engine technology helps, she says.
Prior to installing Endeca in 2003, Quick & Reilly's Quinn says the firm didn't have a search-engine tool. "We were sort of taking a back seat and had our hands full with a number of other things," he explains. "We had a non-enterprise solution that was really there to fill some gaps and could help customers with certain types of information. It was hit-and-miss."
When Quinn started looking for a search solution, he had one key objective: "We needed to make sure we had consistency across the organization. Every firm struggles with that." He checked out traditional search platforms, including key-word and natural language search engines. "We looked long and hard and more or less stumbled across Endeca, which is more of an advanced-type solution. It bundles word search with a navigation element," Quinn says.
So when a user searches for a phrase like "529 plan," instead of a random list of hits, the information is presented with some context. First, the search links to and briefly explains documents that contain the phrase "529 plan." The results indicate where each document is stored on the site, such as under the products and services section. The user can then narrow the search to only those documents that appear in the products and services section. If a key-word search finds something in which a customer is interested, the system provides easy access to similar documents located in the same place.
Quinn says that with a traditional search, "You find your way to a page, but you don't know where it resides." The navigation element of Endeca's solution, he says, is"extremely valuable. The call center reps and brokers who use it understand it and like it."
With the number of Web pages proliferating rapidly - Google now boasts that it indexes more than 4.2 billion pages - a search function is critical to the efficiency of an organization. If customers can find information on their own, they're not taking up valuable staff time with queries.
Beth Devin, executive vice president of adviser and client technology at Charles Schwab in San Francisco, notes that Schwab's site has grown to include "hundreds and hundreds of pages," adding that "There's so much information available that navigating it is quite a challenge."
In mid-2001, Schwab added a natural-language search engine from Cambridge, Mass.-based iPhrase Technologies to its site. Natural language searches, which allow surfers to hunt for information by asking questions, are often considered broader than simple key-word searches. But they presuppose that the user knows the right question to ask - which isn't always the case - and studies suggest that most Web surfers only type in a few words when using a search engine, rather than posing a question. Still, natural-language technology can be an effective tool.
"Since implementing iPhrase," Devin says, "We have actually seen a significant reduction in the number of e-mails [requesting help]. We've absolutely seen savings there."
She warns, however, that adding a search tool to Schwab's Web site was not an easy task. "It was a significant undertaking," she says. Devin's team had to work closely with the vendor to understand how the site and information on it is architected. And, she adds, "You have to build into the grammar base the things that are particular to you and your company and make the software savvy about your site."
Bill Thornton, CIO for Fidelity Investments' e-business unit, says that in an era of investor information-overload, "We spend a fair amount of time evaluating search technology," adding that Fidelity is examining everything from key-word to natural-language searches in a bid to deliver the best Web experience to customers.
He stresses, however, that a search engine is only one element for helping clients find data. Particular care must also be given to how a firm architects its site and to navigation, he says. Thornton explains that there are two types of surfers: those who use search engines and those who prefer to click on navigational bars to wend their way through a Web site. "We believe that access is best served by a portfolio of access methods, including navigation, complemented by search engines and special-purpose tools," such as filters, he relates.
"We spend a fair amount of time on our information architecture. We start with our customer-access patterns," he says, noting that Fidelity has a user lab where it tests how people surf the site. Fidelity tracks user clicks and analyzes access patterns.
"We don't have any hard and fast rules," he says. "We want to understand what are the most common sequences, pages and links clicked. We take that as one of the primary inputs into navigation and site design."
Ameritrade's Ferbert says his firm is currently undergoing a site redesign that it will introduce later this year aimed at streamlining navigation. The goal, he says, is to build a site so that clients don't ever have to drill down more than two clicks. "It's a very intuitive presentation of data. We're targeting long-term investors and active traders."
Ferbert adds that the beauty of the World Wide Web is that it allows investment firms to change tactics on the fly. "The greatest thing about the Internet is that you can put something out and get feedback from 50,000 clients in a week. They will e-mail and tell you what they like and didn't like."
Quick & Reilly's Quinn is also contemplating what's next, though much of his attention at the moment is centered around integrating the firm with its recent suitor, Bank of America. He expects to see more of a "merchandising component" to search technology at brokerage sites.
For example, at Amazon.com, surfers can hone in on a specific title of a book. The search returns a list of similar books that other customers also bought. He says the same techniques could be applied to investment research sites to help investors identify relevant information that other investors searching the same topic have unearthed.
Quinn reiterates that sifting through the data and finding relevant information is a common problem. "It's a problem for everyone out there, especially as customers get more sophisticated and the products and offerings get more complex. Different firms try different things. I don't think anyone can say we've got this solved [yet]."