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What’s the first thing you do when you land on an ecommerce site you’ve never been to before? If you’re like most people, you’ll start with a snapshot check of the design. That flash assessment shapes your opinion of how trustworthy the site is. It’ll also determine how long you stick around.

As you take in that first flash of an impression, the site must complete loading. If you have to wait even one extra second, if you even notice it, the odds you’ll leave the site spike – dramatically. Research shows 57% of consumers abandon sites that take more than 3 seconds to load.

If the site passes those first critical trials, it gets a somewhat more leisurely review. You might even read some of the copy (a line here and there) and consider the categories in the navigation to plan your next move.

70% of people are attracted by those options. They’ll click their way around a site. The other 30% won’t. They’re looking for something specific.

So they’ll search for it.

The intention these users have sets them apart. People who use internal site search more likely to convert than their browsing peers. In some instances, the differences can be dramatic. In a study done by the ecommerce agency Screen Pages, people who used a site’s internal search were 1.8 times more likely to buy than non-searchers.

That’s an impressive figure. Yet it’s a disconnect for many sites. The internal search engine often gets ignored or downplayed in site maintenance and improvement projects. Maybe because it feels like a thorny, murky problem. Maybe because we don’t recognize searchers as high-value visitors.

But now you know they’re high-value visitors. So maybe it’s time to put your site’s search function under the microscope, to see if you can find some opportunities for improvement. Any one of the items below might help.

Don’t hide the search box

Put it right up at the top of the page, in a fixed location. Make it easy to identify. Like this:

an example of a prominent, easily-recognized internal search box

Notice how this search box lets users search for items by name or product number. Every cataloger should let their online users search with item numbers. But according to Smashing Magazine’s 2014 “Current State of E-Commerce Search”, “16% of e-commerce websites do not support searching by product name or model number, despite those details appearing on the product page”.

Don’t over-minimalize the search box

OK, so you’re trying to convey how cutting edge your company is. That’s got to show up in the design. We get it. But don’t take it so far that you start confusing people. This happens sometimes when a minimalistic design goes a few steps too minimal. Some people need a plainly recognizable search box to immediately know it’s a search box.

Burberry’s done a nice job with their search box in the example below. It’s minimalistic, it fits seamlessly into the patchwork shape design, and it’s consistent with the other navigation elements.

search boxes can be minimalistic, but still easy to use

Make it work if they just hit return

With old-school search boxes, you typed in your query and clicked a button. That was okay, but we can do better now. For starters, make sure your site’s search function works if someone just hits return while the cursor is in the search box.

Some users find it a hassle to move the mouse over and click a small icon. It’s an almost invisible improvement, but it makes the user experience just a wee bit smoother.

Help them out with autofill

Features like auto-fill and recent searches help the user find what they’re looking for faster. They also give users more confidence their searches will be successful.

Here’s one example of autofill:

an example of autofill, aka autocomplete in an internal search box

This helps the user find what they want faster, but that’s not the only benefit. Autofill (aka “autocomplete”) has increased conversions six-fold compared to visits where the user never used site search. In that same study, people who used ecommerce site search functions were four times more likely to convert than non-searchers. But the autofill tipped the figure up to a six-X improvement.

This is something most sites have implemented – even as of a few years ago. According to Smashing Magazine, “Autocomplete suggestions are found on 82% of e-commerce websites.”

But autofill is just the start of what can be done.

Showing recent searches helps, too

Here’s an example of a recent searches feature in action:

showing search history is one way to personalize the search experience

This tips us into the area of personalized search. It’s where ecommerce is headed, and where all search boxes are headed. As you probably know, Google personalizes its search results based on users’ past behavior. So why not try it on ecommerce sites?

Interpret searches more intelligently

Another cutting-edge technique for internal search is also very Google-esque. It’s the ability to interpret “long tail” semantic searches.

Let’s break out what that means. The “long tail” part refers to the search function’s ability to handle multiple-word search phrases like “blue denim small couch convertible bed slipcover”. “Semantic” simply refers to the meaning of the words – but that’s some of the most complex work going on in search right now.

Sound tricky? It is. We’re only just beginning to achieve true semantic search. But the rewards are worth the effort. Total Retail reports “On average, sites with a semantic-based search bar experience a 2 percent abandonment rate compared to the 40 percent abandonment rate reported by sites that feature a text-based search bar.”

Follow present tense searches

Semantic search might sound cutting-edge, but there’s a way to take it even further: Optimize the present.

Here’s what that means: Some of the most advanced search functions allow their operators to see searches in real-time. This lets marketers shift promotions and featured products at a moment’s notice. Sure, it’s probably too much firepower for a small shop. But for a major retailer, during the first week of December, real-time search optimization could net millions.

Pretty cool, right? Or is your head spinning? Or do you feel like your site will never catch up? Don’t get too down – while there are amazing capabilities in development (and in use), the vast majority of ecommerce sites are still struggling to get the basics down.

And I do mean the basics.

Never show the dreaded “no items found”

Even if it’s been caused by a typo:

no results for this search... not so good

Incredibly, some of the biggest retailers in the country are still trying to get this right. And according to that Smashing Magazine’s E-Commerce Search study, “18% of websites provide no useful results when the user types just a single character wrong in the product’s name.”

Targets internal search function cannot handle misspelled words

Don’t forget symbols and abbreviations, either. According to Smashing Magazine, 60% of top ecommerce don’t support searches with symbols and abbreviations. So a search for “15” MacBook sleeve” won’t return any results, even though the retailer sells them.

It’s hard to do this, of course. Some search queries are just downright weird – they’re tough for even humans to understand. But try the best you can. Even if you can’t match everything to the user’s search, try to give them alternatives, like REI does here:

offer alternatives, even if there isn't an exact match

Let users filter the search results

In the biz, this is known as faceted search. The more products you have, the more important it is, though only about 40% of ecommerce sites offer faceted search.

Faceted search comes in two core functionalities: sorting results, or filtering them.

Here’s an example of sorting results:

example of faceted search that uses sorting

Here’s an example of filtering:

Example of faceted search that uses filtering

That page goes on for quite a bit more, but I think you get the idea. Which filters you offer will depend on the products you’ve got. The filters in the example above, for example, would be a joke on an auto parts site.

Make it portable

You’ve seen cart abandonment emails, right? They’re the triggered messages you get in your inbox with the subject line, “Hey – you forgot something!” and some enticing copy about that item you put in your shopping cart before you left the site.

You probably also know that cart abandonment emails work ridiculously well. Depending on which study you cite, about 40% of them are opened and 10% of them are clicked. Some case studies have clocked them at recovering up to 12% of abandoned carts.

Well, you can send “search abandonment” emails, too. It’s possible to email a user’s search results to them after they’ve left your site. Like this:

send search abandonment emails (like cart abandonment emails) to your customers

Use the query reports from your site

The logs of what people have been searching for on your site are gold – if you bother to use them. If you’ve got a fancy search function, you may already know about this data. But if you’re a smaller shop, you might not.

Have no worries, smaller shops: You can get great data, too. If you’ve got Google Analytics and Google Site Search set up on your site, there are reports you can run to see what’s happening with search on your site. The first thing to do is to make sure you’re even tracking the search queries – it’s not the default setting.

So go to “Admin” > “View Settings” and turn it on here:

the site search settings page in Google Analytics

Once you click it on, you’ll see this:

tutorial for tracking search queries on your site

See that query parameter field? Don’t let it scare you. You may only need to put one letter in there. To find out which letter (or word), run a search on your site and look at what comes after the “?” in the search results URL. Like this:

how to find the search query parameter on your site

For the site above, the search query parameter is “s”. Other common query parameters are “q”, “term”, or “search”.

For the site in this example, I’m just going to enter the “s” in the query parameter field and click save.

setting up internal site search final step

And you’re done. Not so hard, right?

If you want a fancier set up, see Google’s instructions on how to set up site search. Luna Metrics also has a nice article on the subject.

Conclusion

It’s time we all stopped neglecting the search function on our sites. Not only are we making the customer experience worse for our visitors by ignoring site search – we’re also costing ourselves mucho sales.

I get that implementing some of these suggestions is hard. That’s one reason people have been avoiding internal search best practices. But if you only pick one or two, and commit to implementing them this quarter, you’ll be on your way. You’ll also be ahead of your competition: Many ecommerce sites still lag with their internal search features. Even some of the biggest ones.