Hello? Is it me you’re looking for? The problem with site search

Online consumers with intent to purchase only find what they’re looking for in 50% of ecommerce searches. That needs to change.

eBay has one. As do Selfridges and Louboutin. Buried somewhere in the top right-hand corner of a website screen usually sits the site search box – a crucial element for the retailers’ homepages.

It doesn’t take much browsing of retail websites to realise that site search has hardly evolved on some since 1999. Despite improvements in online retail technology, there has been extremely limited search innovation.

site search hp

Online shoppers accustomed to Instagram and mobile gaming are held back by old fashioned text boxes and less than helpful search results.

The ‘Findability’ problem

‘Findability’ is a term first coined by Professor Michael Hendron, whose research indicates that nearly a third of ecommerce browsers use site search, and 90% of buyers will probably use it. Yet these same sought after buyers only find what they seek in half of all site searches.

Since when did the retail industry accept a success rate of just 50%?

Not long ago, selling online was a struggle in itself. Technical criteria influenced engineers’ website design, taking precedent over regard to the emotional needs of consumers. What mattered was simply whether or not the website functioned.

No one considered some of today’s most important UX issues: the feeling you get when you visit the page; the welcome the brand projects and helping a customer find the product they want.

According to marketing expert Seth Godin, all the driving factors behind poor design boil down to one thing: empathy (a lack of it).

Most search engines do not understand what the user is searching for. How can the site search be empathetic if it does not understand? According to a Baymard Institute study, 70% of the US top 50 online shopping sites need the user to search in the website’s own jargon. For example, you can’t use “rain mac”, you must use “raincoat”.

amazon site search results

Over 50% of search functions did not understand the user searching by themes, such as the weather or the “beach”, and despite 82% offering alternative suggestions, 36% of options suggested actually had a negative impact on the customer’s experience.

When someone needs help in a shop and asks where to find “a swimming costume for my holiday”, the retail associate wouldn’t tell them they didn’t know what ‘holiday’ is. And they wouldn’t tell them, ‘This shop only has ‘swimsuits’”. The internet is the only place this happens.

Shoppers have grown accustomed to buying almost anything they need using credit cards online, and getting it delivered within 24 hours – to an extent the excitement is gone. As a result, retailers have to improve the quality of online shopping by focusing on pipping the competition to it, and distinguishing themselves via seamless customer experiences.

To fix on-site search, we have balance the technical function with understanding the consumer.

So what could improve your site?

1. Findability

Getting customers to the product they want as quickly as possible is the key to a good ecommerce experience – and ultimately a purchase. Research found 73% of visitors will leave an ecommerce site within one or two minutes if they don’t find the products they’re looking for.

Investigate what does and doesn’t happen when a consumer lands on the homepage, and how people navigate through to a purchase. If they had to search 10 different times to find one item – it isn’t working.

Look at what happens (or doesn’t happen) on your website. When they buyer searched “boots”, look at whether she stayed on the results page, whether she browsed, or filtered by category. Count the number of times the search bar has been used.

Learn from the various words and abbreviations she has used if they aren’t resulting in search results for her. Work out where the issues with findability arise and apply your insights to improve customer experience.

2. Temptation

Finding goods should be simple for the shopper, but without hurrying them to the checkout. Allow the shoppers to be enticed by the way the search results are presented, before making their final decision.

How? Instead of motionless lists, display eye-catching visuals, product tiles, related content, and allow for interactivity.

site search examples

You could, for example let users digitally put together an outfit. Or, create a dynamic page by moving images as the search term takes shape. In the same way in-store shoppers like to be inspired and guided, online visitors need direction too and too often search results pages are dead space.

3. Personalisation

A search bar should recognise a shopper’s preferences in the same way the best sales associate recognises those of loyal customers. Factors including browsing and purchasing history, as well as social media activity and other demographic criteria should be taken into account when generating search results.

The search function should be suggesting products that are relevant and giving each visitor a unique experience, not displaying generic results. Simply having an autocomplete search box isn’t going to cut it.

Site search is repairable. By thinking emotionally, engineers can help e-commerce balance the technical aspects with findability. Site search is about to be fixed.

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