Tuning your site search to sell

Jun 01, 2008 9:30 PM  By

Site search is a conversation. It’s a chance to listen to your Website customer and respond. Tuned for maximum effectiveness, your site search has the potential to be one of the most ROI-positive investments you’ll make in your site.

Is your site search providing maximum return? To answer this question, you’ll need to:

  • Gain an understanding of why site search is unique among your Website features and why this matters.
  • See if your site search is primed to help your visitor find, choose, and buy.
  • Discover the metrics you need to evaluate your site-search’s performance.
  • Learn the most important questions to ask when shopping for a new site-search system.

How do you do this? Start by considering what makes site search different.

To understand the power of a well-tuned site-search application on an online retail site, let’s check out how this feature differs from its counterpart: site navigation.

Take a look at your Website’s homepage. Now, count the navigational links on the page. Count top nav, left nav, and footer links. Expand your dynamic menus. Count your category links, your featured product links, the links to editorial and customer service. How many do you have?

For a large-scale online retailer — one selling more than 1,000 SKUs — it’s not unusual for the number to approach 50. That’s 50 attempts to provide a visitor with exactly what she needs to get started on her shopping quest, 50 attempts to be helpful.

The problem is that those 50 links all represent just one point of view: yours — the site owner’s. To understand what your customer really wants and the language she uses to describe it, you need to pay attention to the empty box on the page — your site search.

As your product selection and your site become deeper and broader, your navigation becomes more detailed and more complex. And that means the alternative your site search provides becomes more crucial.

The right results can deliver the goods to the on-a-mission customer who knows exactly what she wants, or save the sale for a browsing customer who’s become overwhelmed. So while site search may not represent your point of view, it’s worthy of your attention.

Helping visitors shop

When we search for information on Google, success is easily defined: Scanning the results page, we need to see text links that seem likely to lead to relevant sources of information. But shopping search is different. Relevance of results still matters, but it’s not enough.

Your site search needs to help your visitor choose and buy, as well as find. Success is about more than the best possible algorithm.

The entire customer experience — presentation, merchandising, available help and refinements — all make a difference. Let’s do a self-evaluation of the experience site search offers shoppers on your site. Try this exercise with terms pulled from the lists of the most popular searches on your site.

Site-search box: How easy is it to find the search box on your page? This may sound basic, but it’s critical. Successful search boxes are clearly labeled “Search.” They offer a large form field and a clearly labeled submit button. They’re found in a standard location at the top of the page, close to your primary navigation.

Be sure not to confuse your visitors by placing your search box too close to that other form field on the page — your e-mail sign-up box.

Site-search results pages: Now start typing in terms and take a critical look at the pages your site returns. Here are some of the most important questions to ask:

  • Are the results introduced by a clear scannable headline, labeled as search results and echoing the search term?
  • Are the results accurate and relevant, or is your tool casting a net that’s too wide or too narrow?
  • Is the ordering of the results logical, learnable and consistent? Easy to change?
  • Do your guided navigation links offer useful refinements that differentiate products and help your shopper choose, or are they long lists of features pulled straight from the manufacturer’s or owner’s manual?
  • Is your search smart enough to avoid letting the shopper paint herself into a corner, or can choosing multiple refinements lead to a “sorry, no matching products” message?
  • Some shoppers like guided navigation, others respond to traditional merchandising tactics such as hero product recommendations. Does your search results page cater to both types of shoppers?
  • Do any terms return any “dead end” no results pages? Or does the site always offer relevant alternatives when no matching product is found?
  • Do the pages provide clearly visible contact info for your product experts and customer service staff, or does “Search Help” consist of long blocks of “how to search” text, more likely to frustrate your shopper than actually be read?
  • Do search results pages function as strong entry pages to your site? Do they showcase the reasons to buy from you — and not from your competitors?

How well did your site search perform in this quick, starter exercise? For a more revealing assessment, test your site search with five or more live users. The user experience your site search provides has real impact on its contribution to your top line.

What to measure

Because site search provides rich, straight-from-the-customer’s mouth (or keyboard) data, you need to include it within your ongoing site analytics work. The box above contains 15 useful key performance indicators and metrics for evaluating and improving the performance of your site search.

You’ll notice that the first four points at the top of the list are outcomes — they report on what your site search ultimately makes happen — measured in conversions, dollars and exits, as well as customer satisfaction. To move each of these outcomes in the right direction requires that you consistently tune and improve your site search based on the supporting metrics that round out the list.

For example, a high percentage of site exits on a given search term could be attributed to something obvious — say, no matching results. But it could also be caused by poor relevance, indicated by pages with no results clicked.

Mining your site-search analytics will also allow you to make proactive choices about your site navigation, content and design. Review lists of popular searches to understand the language your customer uses to describe your products, and then reflect this language in your links and copy.

Pay attention to pages where many searches begin: Your shopper could be seeking content that needs to be added to the page.

Seeking a site-search system

If you’re responsible for the customer experience or merchandising on your site, you may find yourself charged with choosing software for your company’s next generation of site search.

To prepare and shop wisely, one of the best things you can do is to understand exactly what needs to happen after the contract is signed. Speaking generally, there are several steps common to implementing any site- search system.

  • Integrate the search application with your data

    For a retailer, that’s the product catalog and supporting content.

  • Tune the initial results

    Net neither too narrow nor too wide.

  • Integrate with your e-commerce platform

    So people can buy stuff.

  • Design your interface

    Most top-tier systems provide templates — they may or may not suit your needs.

  • Define and apply business rules

    Decide which offers, featured products, special offers, and so on are presented based on which customer actions.

  • Define metrics and KPIs and integrate reporting

    See the list of KPIs and metrics on page 32.

  • Set up the people processes

    Figure out who’s going to get things running, keep it going, and make it sing.

Now, think of Bill Murray and the movie Groundhog Day: If you’re serious about optimizing your site search, you’re not just taking those seven steps once; you’re taking them over and over and over again. Your site search needs to keep pace with changes to your product assortment, your offers, the design of your site, and findings from your analytics.

Mike Moran, an engineer for IBM’s OmniFind search and text analytics products, points out that retailers often overlook a critical factor when selecting site-search software: the ease with which the system can be continually modified to meet the site’s needs. Moran sees rapid experimentation as fundamental to online marketing success — his book Do It Wrong Quickly is a practical handbook on the subject — and he sees ongoing iteration as necessary for success with site search, too.

“Site owners need to look at a potential solution and ask, How am I going to change this on day 2? On week 7? Six months from now and a year from now? Who’s going to do that work, and what kind of operational relationships and training will be needed?” So as you shop for site search, ask each vendor, or the team building your in-house system: “How do we change it, and who’s going to do it?”

Keep tuning your site search to the needs of your customers, products and business. It’s a key step you can take as you build your effective Website.


Larry Becker is vice president and principal, Website effectiveness, at the Rimm-Kaufman Group (www.rimmkaufman.com), an online marketing consulting firm.

15 KPIs and metrics for effective site search

  1. % conversion/searching visitors
  2. Sales/searching visitor
  3. % search exits
  4. Customer satisfaction with site search
  5. Top phrases searched
  6. Top categories searched
  7. Top concepts searched
  8. Top queries with no results
  9. Top queries with no results clicked
  10. Pages where searches begin — and end
  11. Top queries resulting in paging
  12. Top queries resulting in additional searches
  13. Top (and bottom) attributes utilized (guided nav)
  14. Top spelling corrections
  15. Segmentation: top searches for high-value customers; top searches for best external search keywords, and so on.
    LB