Companies need better site search: Thompson

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Forrester Research says that half of Web surfers use site search first on unfamiliar sites rather than browsing. Thirteen percent of visitors go to another site if they can't find what they are looking for.

Companies spend millions of dollars to attract visitors to their Web sites. However, top-name brands continue to make common mistakes in site search, according to Rebecca Thompson, vice president of marketing at Vivisimo.

For example, YUM Brands sites, the owner of KFC and Taco Bell, do not even have search capabilities. Bank of America's site requires users to type descriptive phrases or complete questions to get better answers. On Cadillac.com one must understand Boolean techniques to search.

Many of the companies that spend millions on Web site design and SEM and SEO campaigns are missing a key element. Ms. Thompson and DM News' associate editor Giselle Abramovich discussed how companies continually underestimate the importance of site search to their brand.

DM News: Why is site search important?

Rebecca Thompson: Studies show that when navigating an unfamiliar Web site, half of Web users will turn to site search to find information. Some of the Web sites for the top brands in the Fortune 500 fail to provide a comprehensive site search or search interface. It's quite common for companies to spend upwards of $1 million on a Web site redesign and then neglect or skimp on providing high-quality site search.

DM News: What challenges does it address for users?

RT: Search is a productivity task and common Web searching has trained us users to expect the most relevant answer in the top few results of a search. When searching on a company's Web site, we expect the same experience. This beats clicking through the layers of the site, especially if it's heavy with content, because sometimes we don't have time to browse. It's similar to going to a bookstore knowing that you want a certain book by a certain author. You make a beeline for the computer terminal, type in relevant keywords, find the shelf location in the store, grab the book, head for the counter and get out of there. People want that experience on Web sites.

DM News: What challenges does it address for marketers?

RT: As a marketer, if you know that half of your site visitors interact with the search function, this is an opportunity to guide their experience of your brand. Marketers should be happy to have focused customers using search to get to the information they want. In the same way you pay attention to what the viewer sees in the regular navigation of your Web site, you should pay attention to what they see when they search on your site. Users who don't find relevant results from searching your site can easily leave and find information elsewhere. Those eyeballs that you spent so much to draw in are gone and maybe they'll get attracted to the competitors' site in the course of searching on Google or Yahoo. That is a missed opportunity.

DM News: What are some of the most common mistakes that marketers are making with site search?

RT: Many companies seem apathetic about the search function on their site. They invest in a search engine to crawl the site then never check to see how well it functions. Poor results can take many forms: documents with minimal relevancy to the search query, summaries of the results that say nothing or bewildering document titles. Looking for the term "environment" on the Web site of Conoco-Phillips, you'll get document titles like "Layout 1," "printmgr.file" and "Screen." Users would have to click on each of these 458 results to see if it really contained anything pertinent to the query.

Users aren't willing to work this hard to find what they were searching for when a consumer Web search is likely to provide a better answer with far less work required. Some companies implement a search engine thinking that it will intuitively understand what the searcher is looking for and respond by answering a "question." This didn't work very well on the Web and it doesn't work on corporate sites, except for specialized technical customer support sections.

The problem is these search engines give an answer to a "question" that you never asked and remove all other results that may have had the "answer." If you are a Bank of America customer with a 16-year-old daughter who wants to open her own active savings account, you'd be inclined to go to its Web site and type the query "accounts for minors."

Unfortunately, you get one result for custodial savings accounts, which isn't what you are looking for - unless the daughter can wait until she is 18 to withdraw funds - and the search engine hasn't given any other useful options other than calling the local branch for information. Given how much emphasis banks have placed on automation to reduce costs and increase efficiency, this isn't the best outcome for the bank either. Implementing a search solution that attempts to mimic human conversation rarely works.

Another mistake is brand confusion that occurs when either the search page title or search URL strings reflect the brand of the search vendor instead of the company itself. When doing a search on United Technologies Corporation's UTC.com, the search vendor's name is prominently displayed on the results page, both in the URL and the Web page title. No matter how much you adore your search solution, the brand identity represented in both the page title and URL should reflect your company. With all of the phishing scams today, Web users are paying a lot more attention to URLs and redirects.

DM News : What recommendations do you have for marketers?

RT : Companies will have to take a fresh look at how their site search works. The first thing to do is to ensure that your search solution is up to the task. A great way to evaluate your Web site's search is to log the top 10 search terms visitors look for on the Web site. Do the search yourself and take a look at the results to see how helpful they are. Are they relevant? Are they up to date? Is it easy to navigate the results? Are you highlighting the content you want visitors to see? Put your site search through usability testing, just like you do with site navigation design.

DM News: Many site searches have poor results. How do marketers avoid this?

RT: Work with your technology department. The IT department is usually tasked with implementing site search, but IT can't be expected to understand marketing or branding goals of a corporate Web site.

Marketers and brand managers typically have this information to guide the general Web site design. Why not use the information to guide the site search experience? All of the standard ideas in branding - company personality, themes - can be replicated in search. Even the hot new trend in Web navigation design - the creation of user personas - can be applied to site search. Marketers should not think of the search results pages as a separate part of their Web site that looks and feels different the rest, but as an integral part of the Web site visitor experience.

DM News: How do site maps tie in with site search? If a site has a site map is the search box still necessary?

RT: Yes. While site maps are very helpful, they typically provide only the a hyperlinked title of each page - users still have to guess if this is what they are looking for based upon just title page information versus the summary or "snippet" that a search result provides. And of course site maps only work well for sites with a small amount of content. Imagine reading a site map of Microsoft.com.

DM News: Can you give some examples of sites that have great site search and point out the good aspects?

RT: E-commerce Web sites have historically provided great search because the risk of not providing it is so high - Web buyers will go elsewhere. Examples of e-commerce sites with good search are Amazon.com and Netflix. One of the things that they do very well is to provide site visitors multiple ways to navigate search results to narrow down choices or discover new items.

USA.gov, the federal government's official Web portal, leverages search to deliver relevant content for its users. It has the search box in a prominent location in the center of the home page at the top. Its use of clustered search results help users quickly drill down to the right content. Doing a search on "passports," which is probably a common search term query for their site, features FAQ call-outs that answers immediate questions on the topic. Another good query is "George Bush" as it brings up not only the WhiteHouse.gov link but also recent images and policy statements from the president.

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