The importance of the "other search": Web site search

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When online marketers and Internet technologists talk about "search," the image of millions of shoppers, researchers and office workers typing queries into Google or Yahoo or MSN comes to mind. And while this type of search is critical to those seeking information, products or services on the Internet, there is another search that demands the attention of site administrators and online business managers. It's called "site search" - the search functionality on your Web site.

While external search, or search engine marketing, is key to getting visitors to your Web site, site search is critical for customer conversion and retention. Consider the following:

A leading high-end department store's Web site recently reported that the ROI on its site search investment was 10X - or 1,000 percent. The conversion rate of people using search functionality on e-commerce sites were nearly 3X that of average site visitors.

Another leading high-end department store's Web site reported that it received a 25 percent increase in sales via site search by automatically influencing search results based on Web site behavioral data. A Fortune 100 company's Web site recently saw a 4 percent to 5 percent decrease in customer support calls after a recent upgrade to its site search capabilities

While many people recognize they need site search, for many online businesses it is currently little more than a box on their site. It certainly is not considered of strategic business value. This assumption, however, is a real and measurable missed business opportunity.

Consider this typical scenario. A company's management hires a team of savvy Web marketers who spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to successfully generate traffic to the site. After spending this money, visitors arrive only to find that searching for information on the site is difficult, slow and not relevant.

One in three site visitors use search first - before doing anything else on the site. However if search does not return relevant results, the chances of them returning are slim. Visitors are telling marketers, in their own words, why they came to the site, and frequently the site is not responding to those requests. Why?

Because relying on navigation alone to address visitor requests inevitably means that a percentage of the users' needs are unmet. Navigation is an important part of the site, but it assumes that you know how all users will engage with the site, which clearly cannot be the case.

The smartest sites and the most savvy Web marketers are investing in and attending to site search with the same high priority that they associate with optimizing for, or buying keywords on, the major search engines.

Still unconvinced?

Then take these five proven site search best practices back to your Web marketing team and measure the results.

Place the site search box prominently in the top navigation and on your homepage. Site search should be something that visitors can access on every page of your site, whether they are in the shopping cart, the gift registry, the customer service section or in the product information pages. It should remain in the same place, just like any piece of global navigation. It should be at the top and should be prominent. Your visitors will be 91 percent more likely to use search if you follow this best practice. After you invest and optimize site search, you want visitors to use it.

Design an effective search form. Beyond the search box on the homepage, make sure your search form - whether simple or advanced - is optimized. Use parametric searching if your site's data is appropriate. Or provide filters or advanced search options to become available as visitors search. Use "all words matching" as the default, but give searchers the ability to set "exact phrase" or "any words" if they wish. Provide a "did you mean" functionality for misspellings or difficult words or phrases.

Guide your visitors. Do not allow users to get a "no results found" message. Instead, provide a faceting and filtering interface on the search results pages so that visitors can narrow their request or query down as they go. Create an experience that's more like an offline store (browsing, asking questions, seeking help, building relationships between items). If you do not carry something online, but offer it in an offline location, use that opportunity to point the searcher to the answer to their question.

Go beyond the basic search results list. Include thumbnail images. Include pricing. If you are a site with product images, provide for magnification and rotation and zoom capabilities within site search. Include icons for PDFs and other media file types. Include "buy now" buttons on search results, if appropriate. Show related searches and most popular searches. Ensure that the search results match and support your company's overall brand.

Measure. Manage. Optimize. Read your search reports for top searches, searches that result in zero results, and analyze trend data. Analyze how search contributes to various conversion events on your site - registrations, purchases, customer service inquiries. To do this, you should be integrating your site search application with your Web analytics application and managing site search key performance indicators as you would any other. Follow searchers through their entire visit and do path analysis. If you constantly measure, you don't need to be afraid to try new things to optimize your results.

You can incorporate this data in making decisions about content changes, search tuning initiatives and other online activities. Make those changes and manage based on the results.

If you have devoted significant resources - time, personnel, technology - to the "other" search, then congratulations. You are an early adopter of making site search a critical component of your Web marketing strategy. If the "other" search is still just a box on your site, you are missing a valuable opportunity. Take action on the best practices in this article and you will see immediate benefits to your online business.

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