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Monday, Oct. 13, 2008 at 7:27 am

Tweaking Internal Site-Searches into Buying Opportunities

By Daniel McGuigan
October 13th, 2008

If you sold Widgets, and a Widget-buying customer walks into your store, can’t find any Widgets on her own, and when she asks what aisle they’re in you remain silent, would you fire yourself? Maybe contribute to the Darwin Awards?

Think of your site’s search box as a last chance to get a visitor to take action on your site.  A majority of visitors will only use internal search as a last resort when they are unable to find what they are looking for through the landing page and its subsequent navigation. If the visitor gets zero results or are still unable to find what she wants in the search results, that result page will be her last stop on the way to your competitor’s site. While internal search is not used by the majority of visitors,  it is necessary to provide a visitor with relevant and useful information when she does search.

Your visitors expectations of your site’s search is that it will perform as well as the search they are used to from their favorite search engine.

There are many ways that search result pages can be optimized to provide visitors with an easy means to find what they are looking for — or at least something that will keep the visitor moving through your site. Here are a few places to start:

Drill down and sorting options -  Long lists of results can be daunting. Give visitors the option to drill down by various criteria. Allow visitors to drill down or to sort by category, price, brand, sale items, availability, best selling. Test which ones have the most impact.

Correct Misspellings - Misspellings are easy mistakes to make. Plan for these mistakes by bringing visitors the right results when they use the wrong spelling. Let the visitor know they have made a mis-spell (“did you mean: dictionary? “) and either provide the results directly on the page or provide link to the properly spelled results. Mine these on a regular basis and they’ll also provide you insights into merchandising opportunities.

Consider Related words - Visitors often use their own words to describe what they want, they may not use the exact words your site (or your industry) uses to describe what they are looking for. Use related words and common synonyms to bring back relevant results.

Listen to visitors -  This is the only place on your website where you can get qualitative visitor information without pestering them or taking them out of the buying process. An early stage visitor who doesn’t have a lot of knowledge on the subject may  search more often (but less efficiently), thereby yielding good insight into what words other early stage visitors think of. Look at what visitors have entered into your search, visitors may not know the exact name of what they are looking for. Mine the analytics data, look through the terms visitors are searching by and use this information to help bring future visitors closer to what they actually want.

Don’t have what they are looking for?- If you don’t have what visitors are looking for then you must present visitors with options to move forward. Give similar or replacement products if you don’t carry the specific product they are looking for, and if all else fails present links to most popular or featured items.

Help your visitors out by optimizing your search results we these tips.  Following these rules you will be able to keep visitors on your site and bring them closer to the finding what they are looking for.

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Comments (9)

  1. Hi Daniel,

    how would you suggest to respond when the user clicks “Search” thus leaving empty the input text box?

    I notice many users don’t fill in any query on my site’s search boxes: they often just click “Search”, and indeed they are expecting to find something they may had in mind.

    Any advice on that issue? Thanks in advance.

  2. In site search is incredibly important.

    Here is an interesting story: “Eight years ago did not exist. Today, it is the largest online retailer of shoes. In the last eight years Zappos executed many brilliant strategies but there is one that succinctly illustrates the power of the online channel. Zappos monitors their site searches and noticed a disproportionate number of queries for ‘vegetarian shoes’. Being smart and nimble they quickly realized potential and created a new category for vegetarian shoe shoppers which quickly became a significant source of revenue. How did Foot Locker fail to see this trend? In a flicker of an insight Zappos rewrote the leader board. A Web site with zero stores decimated one with over 4,000.”

  3. Good advice. Especially about making sure spelling is correct. I am always amazed at how many simple spelling errors appear on many websites.

  4. Good question Maurizio,
    There are 2 areas that I would look at when trying to solve that problem. First I would make sure that it is 100% clear that the area where visitors are entering the search is meant for entering text. If visitors just see a big button that says “search” they may click in just to begin “searching” with the intent of browsing through items. Many sites place some text in the search box field(such as “item # or keyword” or “Enter Search Here”) instead of leaving it empty. This gives the visitor a some direction and should decrease the amount of visitors who do not fill in the queries. Secondly if the visitor still does not enter anything, the search results page should give the visitors a polite message that lets them know they have made a mistake and then provide some options to begin shopping. Circuit City does a really good job of this, see link below-

  5. Sure we may pre-fill a search input with “Enter search term” or use that as a label, anyway we’ll always encounter (less) users that just click Search without typing any query.

    If we look at the major search engines, they just do nothing whenever they get a search without a valid input. But here we assume that a user knows what a search engine site (like Google) is about and -hopefully- how to use it.

    My take is that we shouldn’t do the same on our store sites, because the user may then conclude that our search function just doesn’t work (a negative reinforcement, because he already may be thinking that the site overall doesn’t “work”, “for her”), and leave.

    CircuitCity certainly does a great job in this case, providing a clear explaination of the error.

    But what about presenting a list of the site functionalities and best offers, at that point, further than the error explaination alone?

    BetterRetail, I too believe search data to be a goldmine full of unvaluable information for those who can read it!

  6. I agree @Maurizio.

    @Dan: Another creative approach is used by When they encounter customers searching for something they cannot help find they incentivize the customer to call them:

  7. Maurizio,
    I agree that their needs to be more than just the error explanation alone. Providing visitors with ways back into the buying process is crucial at this point. In the example of circuit city does this buy listing out all of their categories on the results page. The main reason I like this is because the results page gives a visitors an entry point into all of the categories on circuitcitys site. So a visitors should be able to find what they were searching for if they took the time to read through all of the categories. Adding the “Best Offers” is a great idea also, because this will give faster paced visitors who are just browsing around some quick options. I think having some featured items directly below the error message while having all of the categories listed out below the featured or best offer items would probably be the best way to do it.

    Nice find, I really like what Backcountry is doing or was doing. Even if they don’t have exactly what the visitor is looking for visitor will be much more likely to make an order with the 10$ off. I’m interested in finding out how that worked out for them. They also use really great customer focused language in the error message. It is important not to make it sound like the visitor who made the query was at fault when giving them the message.

  8. Tweaking Internal Site-Searches into Buying Opportunities…

    Your visitors expectations of your site’s search is that it will perform as well as the search they are used to from their favorite search engine.

    There are many ways that search result pages can be optimized to provide visitors with an easy means…

  9. [...] assume you’re happy with your website’s search box. Now it’s time to read Tweaking Internal Site-Searches into Buying Opportunities on the Conversion Rate Experts blog, which says that “There are many ways that search result [...]

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