Your site search engine isn't a toy, and you shouldn't treat it like one.
Have you ever visited a Web site on which you were given absolutely no clue how to find what you were looking for? Seeing I ask the question, you'll guess that I have had this experience. The first thing you would typically do, after having looked through the main categories and concluded that none of them covered what you were after, would be to look for the search box.
Now, this is where, repeatedly, I'm surprised. Some sites still operate without a search function! But this is not the problem I'm addressing in this column. The real problem lies in the type of results some sites' search functions return.
Before continuing, let me emphasize an important and, apparently, misunderstood fact. A search box is not there for fun, and a visitor doesn't use a search box for fun or to waste time. Visitors need and use search boxes because they have something specific in mind, and what they have in mind could mean business for your company.
Despite this vital fact, most sites have seemingly installed some standard, off-the-shelf, discount search function that brings up either tons of irrelevant results or, just as unhelpfully, no results at all. All this achieves is more confusion for the visitor.
I'm sorry, a search function is not a Holy Grail, out of bounds to all but the programmer. It has to be as functional and useful as every other component on your site. And it has to be intelligent, too. Here's an example of intelligence. If I visit Google and type in "Peopel," the site automatically comes up with the query, "Did you mean: People" rather than resorting to a dead-end "no results" response.
So far I haven't seen one single local search engine do the same, even though the more focused and specialized nature of these businesses would make it easier to guess the most commonly searched words. The fact is, however, most local search engines deliver an utterly unrewarding search result, declaring nothing is found. And the predictable behavioral result? Visitors might try an initially unhelpful search engine a couple of other times but, more likely, will push off to other sites, never to return to the source of frustration.
I can hear you thinking, "But what if I haven't got what they're after?" Well, let's look at the problem another way. Say you really don't have anything to offer in response to a search query -- what the visitor is looking for simply isn't in the archive. Then what? Suggest something else related to the search topic. This is a cross-selling opportunity. If people are searching for paperclips and you don't have them, you could offer the staplers you have in stock instead. In the worst case, if your stock has nothing to do with office products, you can send your visitor to another site where you know he'll find satisfaction -- and you can charge the other site for the lead.
What you're aiming to do is give your visitor a result. It's better that visitors can rely on getting some sort of useful result from using your search function rather than knowing they're likely to leave your site disappointed and frustrated. Negative outcomes reflect badly, not only on your site but also on your brand.
Because this is all about brand building, too. If you know you can always trust a function to deliver, you'll develop loyalty toward the brand providing that functionality. But if a search engine repeatedly comes up with either nothing or 9,229 links (and you can immediately see at least the first 10 offered have nothing to do with your search), you'll quickly lose faith in the brand running the site.
So run a status check on your search engine. Type in the words your customers would most commonly search when visiting your site and find out if your search engine works as your customers expect it to. I'm sure you'll discover that your site and, therefore, your brand still have room for improvement.
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Martin Lindstrom is recognized as one of the world's primary on- and offline branding gurus by the Chartered Institute of Marketing. He is the author of several best-selling branding books including his latest, "BRAND sense: Build Powerful Brands through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight, and Sound," published by Free Press. BRANDsense.com details information about Lindstrom's "BRAND sense" and the BRAND sense Symposium, a branding conference running in 51 cities in 31 countries.
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