Make a Good Investment in In-Site Search Engines

When we’re asked to evaluate a Web site, among the first things we do is analyze the effectiveness of that site’s internal search engines. It’s an obvious place to start. Visitors who search reveal a great deal about their intent.

We observe about 50 percent of all site searches end in results that don’t meet visitor expectations. Worse, some sites’ numbers reach nearly 90 percent. A quick review of a site’s analytics often reveals search results are one of the main visitor exit points. The worst part is how often the searched-for product is actually sitting in the client’s warehouse.

Search expectations are high. Visitors expect search results to be accurate and relevant. After all, if Google can index 6 billion pages and return relevant, accurate results, why can’t a site with a much more limited set and scale do the same?

Let’s examine some key issues in enhancing in-site search return on investment (ROI).

Not Every Site Needs Search

Not every site needs an in-site search engine. We, and the people at, have conducted research that supports the idea visitors who navigate your Web site via standard navigation convert more often and spend more money.

For example, a client recently asked us to evaluate their site. It had fewer than 25 pages. We demonstrated that if the products were properly categorized, navigation could be improved. Visitors could find what they were looking for rather than depend on the poorly implemented internal search tool. We killed the search engine and recategorized the products. Conversion increased over 140 percent. Our client’s average order also increased by 22 percent. We believe that’s because visitors were upsold on those category pages.

Misspell a Search Term

If you go to and type “faberware” into the search box, you’ll see a result for “Farberware.” Notice Wal-Mart doesn’t assume visitors know how to spell (or type). How many times have you misspelled a keyword on Google only to see, “Did you mean: [corrected keword]?”

Try the same search on You’ll get “Your search on ‘faberware’ produced 0 items.” Is this because Macy’s doesn’t have any? Nope! Type the word correctly, and you’ll get results.

Companies such as Macy’s should mine their Web analytics data to find all those failed terms. Then they can take remedies to correct them. Our client sells magazines. It’s spent several hours a week (over the last four years) looking for all those failed terms and matching them to relevant magazines. This ensures it returns accurate results for visitors. It’s part of the reason it’s continuously improved conversions, year after year.

Sort Results by Price, Brand, and Availability

Cruise over to, and type in “digital camera.” You’ll get a couple hundred results thoughtfully presented in a way that’s easy to sort. “Top Sellers” display first, but you can click on a link above the results to sort by brand, title, and price. J&R knows people compare its offerings to results on comparison shopping search engines, such as

If you search for a digital camera under $100 on sharper, you’ll still get results, but not for digital cameras. The retailer doesn’t have digital cameras in that price range.

Related Words and Common Synonyms

Every spring, I play softball, so I started looking for one of those clicker thingies baseball umpires use to keep track of balls, strikes, and outs. I didn’t know what it’s called, but on dozens of sites I tried “clicker,” “counter,” “score keeper,” and a variety of other possibilities in my quest for an “umpire clicker.” I know that’s not what they are called, but I can never remember the exact term. If I go to Amber Sporting Goods, I get a relevant result. However, if I go to Fogdog Sports, it tells me, “We are having trouble locating a match for your search: umpire clicker.” It doesn’t offer a way to refine the results. Who do you think is more likely to make the sale?

No Results?

For the fun of a good example I searched online jewelry retailers for “purple diamonds.” It’s not likely I’d find any real results, but what shows up is interesting. Try this search on and you get:

The item that you are looking for may not be featured on our site at this time. We may simply be waiting to receive the item into inventory. If we don’t currently carry it, we may be able to find it through one of our suppliers.

We’d be happy to help you locate the item you’re looking for. Please contact us at our toll-free number (1-888-DIAMOND) or via our special request page. returns, “This site does not carry ‘purple diamonds’, but we thought you would like to see the items below.” It proceeds to show me some category of items and additional search options.

JCPenney shows me bedding options instead of colored diamond jewelry.

For a similar example with a real search term, go to, which offers great deals on a variety items. Type in “Mephisto” (as in the comfortable walking shoes). Even though the retailer doesn’t have any, it fails to show any related shoe brands. It does carry ECCO, which competes directly, and Rockport, which is a down-market alternative. Don’t you think offering an alternative is better than offering nothing at all?

Make the Investment

Invest time searching your Web site and those of your competitors. Search for some of your best-selling products, as well as for products you’d like to sell more of. If you can’t find them easily, what makes you think your visitors will?

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