In Search of Happy In-Site Search Experiences

I said it almost three years ago when I unleashed my first comments on the questionable usefulness of in-site search functions. And since then, things haven’t changed enormously; it’s just we’ve got more studies that confirm the problems.

The heart of the matter is this: if you are going to incorporate an in-site search application on your Web site, you need to make it a shining example of software design that fits seamlessly into the structure of your site’s persuasion architecture.

We’ve talked before about the propensity of folks these days to imagine the tool metaphor when they think about designing their Web sites. It’s not a good metaphor for how your site must function overall – it costs lots of sales and alienates lots of visitors. Instead, we talk about persuasive architecture and use the metaphor of a dialogue.

But sometimes the tool metaphor is just the ticket. In-site search engines are tools, and they are more effective if your stuff can be categorized by unique identifiers. But most businesses can’t rely on unique identifiers to help their visitors find things, so search tools have to be significantly more sophisticated. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to build a stunning tool that’s capable of some fuzzy logic, replicates the direction-pointing abilities of salespeople and has lots of flexibility.

Get your visitor to what he’s looking for quickly and easily, and he’s far more likely to purchase it from you.

In-Site Search Criteria

Here, in a nutshell, are the basic concerns visitors bring with them when they undertake an in-site search:1

  • Are the search results at this site accurate and relevant?
  • If I misspell a search term, does the site know what I mean and provide useful results?
  • Can I sort the search results by price, brand, availability and other useful criteria?
  • Will the site find related words and common synonyms?
  • Can I search using mixed specifications such as gender, color, etc. (as in “red wool men’s sweater”)?
  • What happens if the site returns no results? Are tips and help available?
  • The Status Quo

    And here’s what recent research tells us about the status of in-site search applications.

    From Jupiter Research:2

    · 33% of customers look first to site search instead of navigation – this means the majority (67%) are looking to your navigation and qualification schemes before they even consider site search options.

    · 50% will turn to site search if the navigation and qualification schemes do not help them find what they are looking for.

    · 45% say they find paging through results too time-consuming.

    · 44% are uncertain exactly what to enter in the search field so they can get the information they want.

    · 39% are irritated that site search works differently on different sites.

    · 39% are irritated that site searches don’t cope well with misspellings.

    · 38% found the search results irrelevant.

    · 21% are irritated that they can’t enter sentences when typing in a query.

    · 13% don’t know what to do without help.

    37 Signals recently released a thorough and informative report highlighting in-site search experiences on 25 top sites.1 The good news, Jason Fried tells us, is that if you enter a perfect, error-free, specific search, 92% of the evaluated sites produce accurate and relevant results. But there’s some bad news, too:

    · 72% of the sites could not match misspellings with the appropriate product.

    · 68% did not allow the user to filter or sort search results.

    · 64% were unable to provide valid results for mixed specification searches.

    · 56% couldn’t handle synonyms and related terms.

    · 56% provided little or no help if the search concluded with “no results.”

    Four Types of Shoppers

    Let’s review the four types of shoppers who can land on your site.

    The basic functionality of most search engines suits the first type of shopper. The visitor who knows exactly what you call a product, where she’s most likely to find it on your site, or perhaps even has a catalogue number in hand is going to find most in-site search applications suitable.

    Lots of folks think the majority of their visitors fall into this self-directed mindset, because these are the sorts of visitors the status quo best serves. It takes a bit more savvy and planning to create a Web site that can engage your visitor in a dialogue and incorporates persuasion principles.

    But it’s necessary to do precisely that, because the second and third type of shopper constitute the sweet spot in your prospect base. These are the shoppers – and they are in the majority – who are fundamentally ignored in typical Web site design and are most likely to find their in-site search experiences terribly frustrating. These are the shoppers who most need you to expand the flexibility of your in-site search application.

    And you’re going to do this just to make them happy? You bet! ‘Cause when you make them happy, they make you happy!

    Grok Recommendations

    Ongoing Research. Don’t trust the entirety of your in-site search development to someone who doesn’t have a clue about your business – Generic Applications R Not Us! At the very least, you should be mining your existing search logs for every entry your visitors make. This can reveal lots of critical information, including:

  • What items your visitors are looking for. Either you’ll figure out they call your products something else, or they’ll clue you in to other merchandise or services you might want to add.
  • How they are spelling the items they are looking for. Misspellings fall into two categories: clumsy typing misspellings and don’t-know-the-correct-letters misspellings.
  • What words they are using. Soda is also pop. Chair might be seat. Night gown might be sleep shirt.
  • Relevance. Always provide the most relevant results first. If your visitor is looking for a combo VCR/DVD television, don’t show the DVD players first. If you are going to use your search function to cross- or up-sell, do that after you’ve answered the primary question your visitor has asked.

    No Dead Ends. Never allow the search function to lead your visitor to a dead end. Offer alternatives or close approximations. “We’re sorry. Your search for Gauloshes found no results. Did you mean Galoshes?” or “However, we do carry Rain Boots.”

    Certainly you can offer the visitor some advanced search options, ways to refine or re-specify the product, but this always strikes me as a form of punishment. In effect, it seems to be saying: “We can’t do this the obvious way, so we’re going to make you click some more.”

    The absolute most important thing to do, especially if the search comes up void, is to provide your visitor ways to get right back into the shopping experience on your site. Re-integrating links need to be in the active window. Options need to be logical. The natural tendency on a failed search is to leave the site. What can you do to keep them there?

    Pay Attention to Qualification. Remember, no matter how successful your in-site search application may be, the majority of your visitors will not make it their first port of call. Probably not even their second. They will turn to it only when all other options have failed them.

    This means that the persuasive architecture of your site must dutifully and thoroughly attend to the Qualifying and Presenting steps in the selling process. In the developmental stages of the design or redesign of your Web site, it is critical to wireframe navigation paths based on the needs of different personality types.

    In point of fact, if you are a master at qualifying and presenting, you might not even need to fuss with an in-site search application!

    These conclusions aren’t materially different from the stuff I was saying three years ago. Just read this quote from an article:

    “By itself, full-text site search merely provides a technical solution to a technical problem,” says Jupiter analyst Matt Berk. … The solution is for site operators to move beyond the traditional search/find-keyword/result model toward experience-enhancing functionality. Such a “discover and dialogue” model would, for example, better coordinate site search and information architecture, as well as negotiate linguistic differences between users and site operators. “Technology alone can’t manage the dialogue,” Jupiter says.2

    Nope, Yours Truly did not write that, but you know it sure sounds as if I did. What’s it you guys say - “Told you so?” I’ve got to tell you, it can be fun to gloat, but that’s a bit on the pushy side, even for me. So I think I’ll just sit back, smile and say, “Stick with me, kiddo!” Meanwhile, knock your socks off and go build a better search tool!


    1 “E-Commerce Search Report.” 37 Signals. January 2003.

    2 “Site search falling down on the job, says Jupiter survey.” Internet Retailer. February 11, 2003. 

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