Best Practices for Refining Site Search

Even though it’s common for 30% to 50% or more of site visitors to use site search, it’s surprisingly under-optimized on many ecommerce sites. Customers who search almost always have significantly higher average order values, conversion rates, page views per visit, and time on site than their non-searching counterparts. On the other hand, often only 5% to 10% of visitors enter your checkout process—but no retailer would dream of neglecting the cart. So why do so many merchants neglect their site search presentation and functionality?

Multichannel Merchant’s MCM Outlook 2012-13 indicates that this neglect is being corrected. The 2012-13 results show that 61.5% of merchants offer their shoppers the ability to refine search results (up from 52.1% last year); 41% are offering guided navigation (up from 30.2%); and 33.6% offer autocomplete (up from 18.8%).

And recent reports show that Walmart and eBay are making huge investments to improve their site search—including eBay tripling its staff working in that area to 150.

You know search customers are more valuable with their higher tickets and conversion rates. So provide them with the best search results possible. Merchandise those results with all the best practices in your arsenal. And help more customers search by giving the search box the attention it deserves.

Luckily, most of us don’t need that kind of manpower—only the concentration to follow site search best practices, including these three:

1. Know what they want, and give it to them. The most important feature of your site search tool is that it actually finds the best products for your customers. After all, that is why the customer is searching.

What Doesn’t Work: Amazon’s new business-to-business site When a website’s search algorithm isn’t optimized, it’s often apparent to shoppers. Do a search at for “Chair” and you get one result. I highly doubt Amazon sells only one chair. But above that lonesome chair is a link to “See results for Chair in the whole catalog.” Click that—and welcome to a world of 1,121 chairs. Hopefully, Amazon will have that extra step fixed by the time you read this.

What Works: This time does it perfectly. Great search results are not only about the words the customer search for, but also about their intent and interpretation. Do a search for “Coffee Table Book” and Amazon shows those large books you display on your coffee table as a conversation piece.

What Doesn’t Work: At, however, I browsed all the way to result number 209 on page 14 without seeing a book—only coffee tables—before giving up. While displaying coffee tables in response to the search phrase “coffee table book” makes sense semantically, it fails to account for user intent, clickthrough activity and conversion data.

2. Make sure results pages are fully functional, not slimmed down. You show shoppers great product results. Now seal the deal with world-class merchandising.

What Works: utilizes every tool in the site search tool box. In addition to showing customers the most popular and relevant merchandise first, the site allows you to sort the results by price, highest rated, newest or best deal. Or, you can refine your results by category, brand, color or price.

The product results themselves are compelling because they feature the MSRP versus the retailer’s low price, product review star ratings, and badges that show which products are on sale, featured or have videos. There are related search terms below each product to introduce me to additional merchandise and product categories. And there is a promotional banner at the top of the page touting a super sale of 75% off.

What Doesn’t Work: Search for “shirts” and you are inundated with 1,504 shirts, but you are offered little assistance in deciding which you want.

You can refine by “Men” or “Women’s Apparel” after you click “More” under “Category.” But gender is your only option for narrowing those 1,504 items. You can’t refine by shirt type (like polo or dress shirt), color, brand or even size. If you could sort by best sellers or highest rated, that would help—but those are not available either. How can a consumer be expected to choose one of these 1,504 shirts with no sorting or refining options?

3. Make the search box easy to see and use. Now that you have a great algorithm delivering the best product mix possible and results pages featuring compelling merchandising tactics, it’s time to get more shoppers searching. Customers who search spend more money, so driving more traffic into that search box equals more revenue. That’s where a large and prominent search box comes into play.

What Works: The search box is clearly the focus of the header. Here the header and entire top portion of the website were designed to feature the search box—it wasn’t squished in as an afterthought. Even though a bigger search box can mean bigger sales, some merchandisers may be hesitant to dedicate as much real estate as did does a great job with a more confined search box that stands out from the rest of the header and navigation.

What Doesn’t Work: Here is a search box that was shoved wherever there was room. Every element of the header is more prominent than the search box, including the email updates sign-up box. I wonder how many customers type a search term in that email field by mistake. Remember, 30% to 50% of visitors use site search. How many of the elements in this header see that kind of demand? Surely something in that header could be sacrificed to make room for the search box.

Ian MacDonald ( is division vice president, ecommerce & marketing at