Shore up your site search

Sep 01, 2009 9:30 PM  By

Imagine a shopper walking into a men’s apparel store looking for a black suit. Then imagine a clerk telling him the shop doesn’t carry black suits and growing silent even though the store does carry black suits. They’re simply referred to as “charcoal” in this particular store.

Scenarios like this are apparently playing out on merchants’ Websites across the Internet.

It’s called the dreaded “no results found” page. On too many merchants’ sites, the “no results” page offers just that: no results and nothing more.

Yet, this person has visited the site and tried to search for an item he or she clearly believes the merchant may carry. And the response is akin to: “Sorry, we’ve got nothing for you.”

It is amazing just how many sites do this, says Larry Kavanagh, CEO/cofounder of Website design and marketing services firm DMinSite. “What a missed selling opportunity.”

Rather than telling the visitor nothing was found, Kavanagh advises trying to keep the customer engaged by such tactics as displaying best-selling products, offering a site map, helpful links, a toll-free number — even live chat if possible.

The goal is to get the order, and the person using that site-search box really wants to find something to buy, Kavanagh notes. “I would say the 800-number shouldn’t just be on the ‘no-results’ page, but on all search-results pages.”

Fiona Dias, executive vice president of strategy and marketing for e-commerce technology and services provider GSI Commerce Solutions, advises offering alternate recommendations on no-results pages.

For example, a sporting goods site could offer people who search for guns — which are illegal to sell online — accessories, such as cleaning kits. “We’ve found that when we offer an alternate product recommendation, comparing that to getting a no-results page, the conversion rates increase by 240%,” says Dias.

Make no mistake, a good site-search experience is crucial. For one thing, the search may have been a last-ditch effort by a serious prospect, according to Kavanagh.

“If a shopper uses site search, that means they weren’t able to find what they were looking for using your navigation,” says Kavanagh. “In general, no one wants to use site search. They’d rather have the product they’re looking for be on the home page, or that somewhere in the navigation is an easy way to find it.”

As a result — in seeming contradiction to the advice above — merchants should strive to make it so visitors to their sites can find what they’re looking for without using the search function, says Kavanagh.

The purpose of that goal is not necessarily to reach it, but to continually review what people are searching for and how to help them find it more easily, he adds. Search is a way to save a shopper who wants to buy from leaving your site: “You want to have an effective site search, but you want to reduce the need to save that shopper.”

Seeking search software

Kavanagh also recommends using third-party site-search software rather than developing it internally. “There are a lot of search plug-in companies that don’t charge that much money,” he says. For instance, at the low end, it may cost you a few hundred dollars a month, he notes.

What to look for in site-search software? For starters, you want a search dictionary, which allows you to substitute alternate names for things people type in their searches, says Kavanagh.

“In some parts of the country, people call a bag you carry on the airline a carry-on, in other parts of the country they call it a wheelie,” he explains. “What a search dictionary allows you to do is every time someone types in the word ‘wheelie,’ replace that with ‘carry on’ in your search engine and show all the results for ‘carry on.’”

A search dictionary allows the merchant to make edits for multiple items in one place rather than having to edit each product to account for differences in terminology, says Kavanagh.

You also want software with directed search, Kavanagh says. This allows the site owner to dictate what results will appear when certain keywords are used, as opposed to letting the search engine operate automatically.

A common example is shipping, he says. “When someone types in ‘shipping,’ they’re not looking for a product named ‘shipping,’ they want to know what your shipping policy is.” Using directed search, the merchant can make sure that anyone who types in “shipping,” or, say, “return policy,” gets the appropriate result.

Another important feature Kavanagh recommends is “search results reorder.” A site using search results reorder monitors the products people tend to click on and buy in search results pages and reorders them on subsequent results pages so the most-bought products are displayed on top.

“A lot of people list search results in ways such as alphabetically, which may be okay, but I would recommend listing them in the order in which people tend to buy them,” says Kavanagh.

GSI Commerce’s Dias recommends highlighting best products in search results. “We’ve found that just that simple act of having three pictures at the top of your best products or your best-rated products can increase conversions by 60%,” she says. “People buy those products and then they spend a lot more.”

GSI has found that this increases average order sizes by 20%, she says. “Do yourself a favor; do your customers a favor and stick them at the top of the page.”

Kavanagh also recommends helping people narrow down results. “When there are six or eight results, you can scan them on one page, but when the search results are 20, 30, 40 or 50, it helps to provide people with filters, such as sorting them by price or popularity,” he says.

And for all these various techniques to be implemented correctly, it is imperative to have some sort of site-search analytics in place.

“Most people judge the effectiveness of their search by picking some term, typing it in, and then deciding whether or not their site search works based on what it returned for that one word,” says Kavanagh. “That’s crazy. It’s like judging a million-piece mailing based on whether your next-door neighbor ordered or not.”

Kavanagh recommends Google’s site search analytics tool. It’s free and relatively easy to install, he says.

Dias contends that too many marketers blame their search software for problems they should be tackling themselves. “In general, it’s way too easy to blame your tools,” she says. But when a firm is seeing less-than-stellar results from its site search, the problem can usually be traced to a lack of attention to detail.

It’s typically not a software problem, she says. “It tends to be a people problem — they’re not looking at their search results every day, they’re not looking to see what people are looking for, and they’re not fixing things.”

For example, failed searches can illustrate what products customers and prospects think the merchant should carry.

“Listen to your search engine,” says Dias. “A lot of people spend their time merchandising their home page and making it look pretty. Focus on your site search. That’s where you’re going to learn a lot, and where you’re going to get really high conversions.”