10 Steps for Simpler Site Search and Navigation

Even though it’s early summer, the holiday retail rush is not too far off—and now is the time to think about your online strategy.

Efficient search and navigation will play a big part in helping your customers cross off some gift-buying tasks on their holiday to-do lists. And while holiday shoppers want to be presented with a wide range of fabulous holiday gifts, they also crave a shopping experience that is fast and trouble-free.

By getting an early start, you can take a methodical approach to making sure your ecommerce channel is as easy to navigate as possible for the influx of holiday shoppers, and that your site search delivers relevant, accurate results that drive conversions.

Here are 10 steps to take now so that Holiday 2012 is a record-setter.

1. Retool navigation for tablets
This year, more of your customers are going to be shopping for holiday gifts with their tablet devices. According to The New York Times, tablets were popular tools for shopping during the 2011 holiday season, with 75% of online shoppers using them to make a purchase. The challenge for retailers is to translate the shopping experience on their standard websites to the tablet environment.

For example, iPads don’t support Flash, so if you have any Flash animation on your regular site you’ll want to remove it for shoppers on tablets. Also, tablet shoppers use fingertip taps and swipes to select images and content, so you may need to redesign your site’s navigation to allow for these actions.

In addition, small text menus, such as items in lists of refinements, can be difficult for tablet users to manage because it’s so easy to click on an unwanted menu item by mistake. The answer is to increase the sizes of fonts and action buttons so that they’re bigger than what you’d use on a standard website. Finally, place the search box in a prominent place for tablet browsing, and make sure it can’t be easily confused with other boxes like newsletter subscription boxes.

2. Add easy navigation tools for mobile users
Just as tablet users are on the rise, so are people shopping your site from smartphones or other devices with small screens. They have their own set of challenges in terms of navigating around a mobile website—the small screen, for example, and the limitations of touchscreen gestures.

Since mobile devices have less room for navigation, help out mobile holiday shoppers by adding drop-down menus; they give shoppers full refinement capability while saving screen space because they can be hidden when not in use. This helps reduce visual clutter on the mobile site, allowing visitors to view more products and content without having to scroll down.

Also, add a second search box to the bottom of the page and make it larger, as apparel merchant Gotapparel has done.

3. Add search history
To help keep returning customers happy, provide a list of recent searches to remind them of products they looked for on previous visits. A search history also means shoppers don’t have to remember the exact spelling of a product name.

For example, FTD.com displays a “Recent Searches” list next to the search box—this is a great way to deliver a more personalized experience.

4. Localize site search results
Now that more of your shoppers rely on mobile devices, they are seeing the benefits of localized website information.

It’s a good idea to extend localization to site search results on your standard website. Ask shoppers to enter a zip code or address so that they see only results, such as store inventory, that are specific to their location; this is particularly helpful for those who want to pick up a product in a nearby store.

For example, Tractor Supply, a tractor and lawnmower retailer, asks shoppers for their zip codes as soon as they come to the site’s home page. Tractor Supply can then display product availability and pricing based on location.

5. Incorporate social media and user-generated content into site search results
You’re probably gathering a lot of interesting content from customers via your Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest pages, as well as from customer videos on YouTube. Bring this content into site search results so that holiday shoppers can benefit from product recommendations or advice without additional clicks.

If you have a multitude of social media content, you can separate out social media-related search results with a separate tab, the way knitting-and-craft-supply retailer Yarn.com does.

6. Add site search to Facebook pages
Since your holiday shoppers probably also spend a lot of time on Facebook, encourage them to shop even when they’re not on your website.

You can add a search box to your Facebook page so that fans can do more than read and post comments. The benefit for holiday shoppers is that they don’t need to leave Facebook to shop your website.

Motorcycle gear store Chaparral Motorsports takes this approach. Once Facebook fans click on a product they have found via site search, they are taken to the company’s online storefront via a new browser window to make the purchase.

7. Get creative with refinements
Refinements are a classic way to help shoppers narrow their search choices, and there are ways to make them even more user-friendly.

For instance, you can use sliders, which take up less space on a webpage, to allow shoppers to choose price or size ranges. But be sure to test them to make sure your customers understand how they work.

And you can show color refinements by using color palettes, which add visual appeal to site search and help simplify the process of choosing colors.

8. Promote holiday big-sellers in search results
Consider overriding default search results to place promotional products at the top of the list. This allows you to showcase your best sellers during the busy holiday season, because online shoppers will pay close attention to products that appear highest within results.

On the other hand, don’t take this strategy too far: Avoid showing unrelated products at the top of the search results if they are not connected to the site visitor’s search term. You can also add keyword-specific promotional banners to search results pages.

9. Increase page load speed with AJAX
AJAX technology can boost the speed of navigation pages by pulling only the information that has changed, rather than doing a complete page refresh.

This is a very user-friendly feature for refinements, reordering, viewing additional pages of results, and changing view options. Navigation pages built using AJAX can offer a near-instant response to shoppers’ clicks.

10. “Float” your search box
A floating search box hovers over the content even as your shoppers scroll down a webpage, which means the search box is always visible and available.

American Bridal came up with this idea; as shoppers click through to different pages and scroll down, the search box, which appears inside a toolbar, remains at the top of the page.

It’s a great way to encourage higher use of site search, which can help increase conversions and revenue.

Shaun Ryan (mailto:Shaun.Ryan@sli-systems.com) is CEO of SLI Systems (sli-systems.com).

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