Monday, January 21, 2008

Internal Site Search 101

by Justin Palmer

Google has raised the bar. If you misspell a word, it tells you. If you perform a search returning millions of results, they prioritize the results by showing you the most relevant page (usually). Compare that to most internal site search features on eCommerce sites. Not only can they not handle misspellings, they usually to a poor job of ranking results. Combine a poor site search feature with a confusing navigation, and you've got a usability nightmare.

Why optimize your internal site search? For one, some research suggests internal site search users convert 3 times better than users who don't use search, assuming their query returns relevant results.

Below I've gathered up 11 ideas for improving your internal site search feature.

  1. Know What Visitors are Searching For: Optimizing internal site search begins with understanding what visitors are searching for, how often, and why. Do users resort to site search because of poor site navigation? Are certain queries performed over and over? Your website analytics must answer these questions (Google analytics recently launched a site search feature). In addition, track what percentage of search queries return no results. As you improve this feature, you'll have a metric to benchmark your progress.
  2. Intelligent Search Suggestions: An intelligent site search feature, that suggests common searches as you type, is an excellent usability feature that can prevent website visitors from making queries that return no results or irrelevant items. Checkout Foodnetwork for a great working example of an AJAX intelligent search feature.
  3. Show Non-Product Results: If you analyze your log files, you'll likely find that many search queries using your internal site search are not related to products. For example, visitors will commonly search for terms such as "return policy" or "employment." Make sure your site search can display results from your site content as well as your product database.
  4. Handle SEO Keyword Searches: If you rely on SEO or PPC to drive site traffic, make sure that your internal site search can return results for the keyword phrases you rank for or bid on. For example, if your site ranks for "ipod accessories", you may find that visitors immediately perform that same query on your internal site search. If the search returns no results, you'll probably lose your visitor.
  5. Filter by Department, Size, & Color: It can be frustrating when a site search query returns too many results. Allow your visitors to filter down the results to increase the relevancy. Common filter criteria are age, product department, color, and size.
  6. Sorting by Price, Age, & Rating: At times, prioritizing search results is more important than narrowing them down. Many customers will expect to be able to sort by price, the newness of the products, or user submitted ratings.
  7. Handle Misspelled Search Terms: By analyzing searches that return no results, you should be able to identify commonly misspelled search terms. Because search engines such as Google have become sophisticated enough to suggest corrected spellings of words, your customer may expect the same from your site.
  8. Eliminate Expired Page Errors: There's nothing worse than hitting the back button on a browser, and getting "This page has expired" error. This preventable error occurs frequently on search pages that submit queries via the "post" method.
  9. Search by Item Number: Make sure your site search can handle item number queries. When a user enters an item number that matches a product in your inventory, take them directly to the product page rather than the search results.
  10. Show Last Search Query in Search Box: After a user performs a search, populate the search form field with the exact query the customer entered. This will allow them to realize if they make a typo when searching, and easily adjust the search query.
  11. Focus on Short Tail Searches: While long tail searches have been the focus of organic SEO for quite some time, you may find it more effective to optimize for more frequently searched keywords. You may find that a small percentage of unique queries make up a large portion of overall queries. In other words, grab some low-hanging fruit by optimizing for the most frequently searched terms on your site.
About The Author

Justin Palmer is a Web Marketing consultant who writes an e-Commerce and Website Marketing blog. Justin offers informational internet marketing products such as an eCommerce optimization tips guide and an Email White listing Guide.