Site search and navigation have been integral parts of online websites since the beginning of the web. With the thriving advent of online eCommerce stores, people have been paying more attention to site search and navigation, especially since 2010. The online space has become more crowded, leading to the fact that site search and navigation are better investigated, analyzed, and developed.
In this article, we’ll define site search and navigation, show a few examples of how it’s used in e-Commerce today and provide some best practices for getting started with site search in your business.
What is site search?
Site search, or internal site search, is the search functionality that crawls your entire website, retrieves its content, and delivers the results back to customers.
When your customers look for information or data contained and uploaded on your website, they will type in a term or phrase (called a search query) on a search bar, and then they’ll get a list of results in that site that are likely to contain what they’re looking for.
Search has been a vital factor of the now-famous flywheel effect at Amazon and other online retail platforms: products that place well in search results tend to sell more, and products that sell more tend to place better in search results.
Internal site search can give you, as a business owner, valuable insights: from most popular products and potential new products to the content that shoppers are searching for. Plus, you can always use internal site search data to help you improve your SEO. A powerful site search also brings you a better shopping experience for the customers as they can quickly and easily find what they want. This results in increased site engagement, higher conversion rates, and thus better loyalty.
On the other hand, an external search, or web search, is a search engine that crawls the web, retrieves web content, and delivers the results back to users. This happens when people conduct a search to find your site - usually via popular search engines such as Google, DuckDuckGo, or Ecosia - an environmental-conscious search engine that plants trees.
In this blog article, we will only discuss internal site search (“site search” for short), not external search.
Why is site search important?
Imagine that a customer who walks into a physical store with a shopping list (or shopping interest) in mind - they can either go straight to the salesperson to ask for their items or, more likely, go browse through several items and try them on before making the purchase.
No matter where is the customer is - in-store or online, if they can’t find your product, they can’t buy your product. Findability is essential.
Almost 6 in 10 shoppers believe that the search box is “extremely important” when they’re shopping; and another 27% consider it “important”, according to the Site Search Survey 2018.
According to research from WebLinc, on-site searchers are 216% more likely to convert than regular users. Site search users are “objective focused” - that is to say they are looking for something specific and are telling you in their own language what they want.
Usually, they want to view product content to satisfy other buying motivators, such as price, availability, and delivery charges. If you show them what they expect to see - as know as “relevant results” - they are much more inclined to add the item to their shopping basket.
“By offering a user-friendly site search experience, businesses can help customers find items they're looking for in a more streamlined way." says Killen.
“This places visitors in control of their own shopping experience, which helps increase customer loyalty and makes then more likely to convert and return to the site for more purchases." says Ornaith Killen - a researcher for Econsultancy.
Screen Pages shared the results of 21 of their clients, which showed that mostly the average revenue that came from site search was significantly higher than regular users.
Users who performed an on-site search spent more than regular users. Source: E-consultancy
While it’s true that not all shoppers use on-site search, those who do look for something extremely specific - they are in a late-stage buying mode, and they expect to find it quickly and easily. If the site is incapable of providing such function, shoppers are likely to leave the site - which means you are losing a sale. Innovative discovery tools such as related searches, recommendations, or promoted banners can help to boost their interest. As long as they find your offerings are valuable, they will keep engaging with your site.
What’s noteworthy is, according to E-consultancy, site search needs to be data-driven. It can only work if the site has been tested time and time again - and of course, if the performances are carefully recorded and analyzed. Every little change to the site needs to be tested before implementation to ensure better conversions at every stage.
To sum up, there are 3 major benefits of site search:
- Site search can give customers what they want - fast!
- Site search can uncover new product and keywords ideas
- Site search provides insight into usability journey, customer intents and shopping behaviors
Who should use site search
It’s hard to imagine a website without site search nowadays. A positive experience with site search will drive more returning customers, more subscriptions, stronger brand loyalty. It doesn’t matter which sector you or your organization are working in, your website should include a clear and easy-to-use site search function.
However, we strongly suggest you invest time and effort on the site search function if you have a site in one of the below types:
Ecommerce sites have a lot to lose if customers fail to find what they want and bounce! Frustration from poor customer experience is the main factor for low user retention and high bounce rates. When shoppers know what they want, you don’t want to make them go through a jungle, or more than 2 clicks, to get the items. Speedy and relevant search results are even more important during busy shopping seasons, so you need to get it right and you need to get it fast.
Content-rich sites can include media sites, popular blogs, knowledgebases, and forums - they all should have an efficient site search function on the run. It’s easy for visitors to get lost in such a giant web of content, so the search function should help them find what they want quickly and direct them to new and relevant topics of interest.Complex industries
Also, if your business is in the healthcare, insurance, or finance industry, it is highly recommended that your organization should consider a highly efficient search function to smoothen customer experiences.
Navigation & site search terms you need to know
Autocomplete (or Rich Autocomplete)
Autocomplete is a feature in which the application predicts the rest of a word a user is typing and thus completes it automatically.
Banner Ad (or Promotional banner)
Banner ad, or promotional banner, is an image-based form of advertisement. It is used for promotions in quick search (search-as-you-type) and/or on search results pages. You can also associate banners with specific keywords and show them when these keywords are searched.
Example of a banner ad used in the results page for “blue jeans girls”. Source: MAVI
Content Search (or Federated Search or Universal Search)
Content search, or federated search, or universal search, allows shoppers to search many data sources, including non-product data, and so various types of content, at the same time, from how-to guides to customer service pages and even a blog. You may have encountered federated search without realizing it - when you type a search query into MacOS Spotlight or Windows Search, the search engine returns results of all kinds such as apps, webpages, contacts, and documents which are drawn from different sources.
An example of Content Search (Federated Search) used by Karen Millen.
Content showcase is the showcase from “Popular” content to “Trending Now” or “New”, a relevant and intuitive browsing experience that inspires users to engage with new content and return to their favorites.
Facets (Faceted Search or Facet Filters)
Faceted search lets users manually refine their searches by multiple dimensions at the same time (e.g. size, color, material, etc.). It is a more detail-oriented way to find products and results in a specific, targeted way that is not possible with broad, one-size-fits-all-filters. When using facet, customers can see where in your catalog they’ve ended up in.
While filters help shoppers narrow a query or avoid searching at all, facets are a subset of filtering, and help searchers quickly refine their options without losing their way or ending up scrolling through page after page.
Facets are ideal for a large product catalog or a big content base.
An example of Facets (Faceted Search) used by Sephora
Fallback Search (“Did you mean” Suggestions)
Fallback search is the act of offering alternative query suggestions that show up at the top of a search results page. Most often found on zero-result pages.
Filters (Product Filters)
Filters are the process of automatically narrowing down a search based on predefined categories. Often times, these categories are broad and based on a single dimension of the product (e.g. clothing type like tops, bottoms, etc.). This helps users refine their queries and discover more offerings by allowing them to narrow down options and reach what they are looking for. Filters are used in a search to create a smaller, more relevant data set based on large categories on the site.
For example, an online clothing store would use “clothing type” as a filter, with shirts, pants, shoes, and accessories as four possible categories. When a website visitor clicks on “shirts” in the top navigation, the clothing type filter is applied, and the visitor sees a results page with only shirts.
Check out Boost Product Filter & Search free for 14 days.
Geo search is to filter and sort results by location-based queries, by distance or around specific geographical locations. You can restrict the results to a street, a city, or one or more parts of the world. You can also classify the results based on how near or far they are to a specific location.
Merchandising (Product Promotion or Boosting Rules)
Merchandising is to select and prioritize the products you want to be promoted in the search bar. Order the showing of products based on how their data matches compared to your predefined rules, such as, showing new products first and sort those by highest margin.
Merchandising is used in Boost demo store. Source: Boost Commerce
- Attribute-based Merchandising
Attribute-based merchandising is to promote per certain product attributes
- Collection Merchandising
Collection merchandising is to arrange an entire collection product placement
- Geo-based Merchandising
Geo-based merchandising is to personalize your offering so that Canadian and Florida shoppers would get a different look of your coat collection
- Keyword-based Merchandising
Keyword-based merchandising is to promote products always on top in search results on specific search keywords
- Recommendation Merchandising
Recommendation merchandising is to set specific rules for product recommendations
- Rule-based Merchandising
Rule-based merchandising is to promote entire categories over others
- Search Merchandising
Search merchandising is to promote specific products per specific keyword search
- Signal-based Merchandising
Signal-based merchandising is to let merchandisers use sales, inventory, and other signals to optimize the experience
- Time-based Merchandising
Time-based merchandising is to create a time-limited arrangement and promotion for Father’s Day Weekend
- Visual Merchandising
Visual merchandising is to present or display products in a way that makes them visually appealing and desirable. The 5 important elements of visual merchandising are:
- Create a focal point
- Use empty space wisely
- Tell a story
- Expose customers to the maximum amount of merchandise
In terms of a brick-and-mortar store, business owners should be concerned about the space and design related to the products, such as themed window displays, dressed mannequins, the arrangement of products on the wall, and probably fresh fruits organized by color are all examples of visual merchandising.
Natural Language Processing (Semantic Search)
Natural language processing is to determine customer search intent and context, with features like measurement detection, character recognition, product typing, and more
Navigation is to offer multiple paths to engagement with a menu of your different content categories, in terms of web design experience. The original definition of navigation is to determine position, location, distance traveled, and course to a known destination.
Personalization (Personalized Search)
Personalization allows for the promotion of products that a customer has already interacted with, by promoting trending and recently viewed products to the customer when they click on the search box and activate the search function
Product Finders (Guided Selling)
Product finders help customers find what they are looking for through a series of questions, or easy to use facets. They are perfect for automotive, beauty, home decor, and fashion sites.
Product ranking is to select and prioritize or organize the positions of the products you want to be promoted in the collection display.
Product ranking is used in Boost demo store. Source: Boost Commerce
Recommendation is to help customers find similar items or complete a look on any page. This way of automatical upsell/cross-sell can increase average order value and units per transaction in the cart and provide personalized product suggestions on the home page.
Redirect is to direct shoppers to a certain page on specific keywords instead of showing results. For example, direct shoppers to a special promotion page when the keyword “holiday” is searched, or “returns” redirecting to the return policy page instead of displaying product results.
Search-as-you-type or Instant search is the function that shows results or suggests the perfect query from the first keystroke.
Search index is a pre-defined, static pool of possible results.
Suggestions are prompts that other people often search for presented to users, helping users search faster, find results quicker, and discover answers to unarisen questions.
Searchandising is the application of merchandising strategies to search results on your site. It allows businesses to promote products directly to users as they explore.
Stop Words (Ignore terms)
Stop words are words that are filtered out, “ignored”, or “muted” from the search data.
Trending search prompts consumers with words from popular and recent searches, creating interaction with shoppers, and accelerating the buying process.
Search results page
Search results page is a list of results created by the search engine in response to a search query and filtering.
Self-learning search uses machine learning capabilities that learn from the search behavior of previous site visitors to automatically improve the results and experience for everyone.
Synonyms (Synonym Dictionary)
Synonyms are words that are tied to other words to make search results come back for products that might not have one of the words in its searchable data, such as “bathing suit” = “swimsuit”.
Typo Tolerance (Fuzzy Search)
Typo tolerance is to search for partial matches that are only 1-2 letters off from the search. It allows users to make mistakes while typing and still find the items they are looking for.
Visual search is to use real-world images, including photographs, screenshots, or Internet photos as the context for online searches. Usually, the visual search function uses AI (artificial intelligence) to understand the content of the images and then return a list of relevant results.
Voice search is to use spoken voice by humans to create command for search query instead of typing. Voice search uses voice recognition technology, initiated by a “wake” phrase to tell the technology to begin analyzing and completing the user query, such as “OK, Google”, or “Hey Siri”.
3 tips to build the best navigation & site search
When shoppers search directly on retail sites, they are typically closer to the purchase decision. Given the stakes, forward-thinking brands should aim to optimize their product listings to rank higher in search results for the most relevant and frequently-searched keywords.
- Identify: Identify top relevant keywords
- Measure: Measure search performance
- Optimize: Optimize the store’s and products’ content
Identify top relevant keywords
The first step is to target the most relevant and frequently searched keywords. Targeting the wrong keywords is like throwing a welcome party to an old employee. Once you start to take tactical steps to improve your product’s findability for the wrong keywords, all of your efforts become wasted.
Some of the first and foundation steps to your eCommerce Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategy are:
- Choose a targeted number of keywords (fewer than 1,000)
- Consider the most relevant and frequently searched keywords
- Include branded keywords (for ex. “Navi" ) in addition to general category keywords (for ex. “Women clothing”)
By narrowing down to a list of relevant and proper general and branded keywords, you are well prepared to upgrade your store and products’ discoverability on search results.
Measure search performance
Once you’ve finalized the list of actionable keywords, you need to measure the performance of each keyword. The right metrics allow you to assess your current business, particularly inbound, performance, benchmark against your competitors and within the industry and optimize what’s in your control.
On-site search analytics give you indications of what people want. If you don’t supply what they are looking for, you can make a decision regarding whether or not there is a new market opportunity to explore. Setting up Google Analytics (GA) data to your search analysis can reveal many uncanny insights. Also, spend some little time looking at “Time after search” and customer exits following search activity for specific keywords will uncover if shoppers are finding what they want. Since you already have specific keywords to tie these metrics to, you now have a better idea of what a potential customer is looking for, rather than merely guessing.
On-site search can also give you insights on the best way to promote your products. If visitors are searching for certain lines/ brands, then make them a prominent aspect of your value proposition.
Keep track of the language being used in search engines, what you call products might not be what buyers call them, so stay up to date with this so that you always return relevant search results.
Take steps to optimize content
There are 3 fundamental ways to optimize your organic search rankings for your keywords - you can start with one of them or combine all three if your business has been ready to take on more experiments:
- Optimize the collection and product categories and textual content to improve the relevance to targeted keywords.
- Enhance the essentials of product discoverability, product content, and rating & reviews. They will improve your conversions and ultimately, your search rankings.
- Leverage paid search and promotions to boost traffic and sales, both of which are important to search algorithms.
Never allow a search to turn up on nothing. Get around doing this by saying “did you mean this?” or searches based on other criteria such as “top searched items at the moment”.
Don’t display items that are not in stock! Or make it clear from the beginning that an item is out of stock and state when it will be available again. There is nothing more annoying than setting your heart on a product only to find out later down the line it is not available.
How to analyze your site search
You should put periodic time aside to evaluate your site search’s performance and make changes where necessary, gathering constant insights to make improvements. Site search data is a massive pool of resources to collect valuable user data, and taking advantage of this to identify what’s working and what could be better can help to optimize your customer’s shopping experience.
Update: Check out the new Analytics feature of Boost
The ideal scenario is most (or nearly all) of your shoppers should use navigation and site search. If this number is too low, it could be a red flag that there are navigational issues with your site that require adjustments. If too many people are using it, does this mean your navigation is not as efficient as it could be?
Most shoppers never click past page one. That means page placement - the page of search results on which your products appear - is a critical driver of traffic, conversions, and sales should be a primary performance metric. However, if they’re clicking through to pages four and five of your search results, it means that they’re struggling to find what they’re looking for. This can possibly because the results are not as relevant as they should be.
This data can help you make better investment decisions (which product lines or collections on-trend) and thus improve your site’s ranking. If you discover that users search for “pure cotton tops” that make the most purchases, it can be worth bidding on some long-tail keywords, SEO, and PPC (pay-per-click) ads to drive more traffic to your site and increase your profits.
This information can help you in two ways. Firstly, you can use it to better form your future inventory decisions. If many shoppers are searching for a certain product, you can gather that information and increase the product’s stock. Secondly, it can help you decide how to handle the situation when a customer is presented with no results: Which products will you recommend instead? How will you redirect the user in a way that is not frustrating?
Site search is an essential tool for the long-term growth and success of your brand. A well-built search system can generate a massive amount of revenue for your business, making it a worthwhile effort. Looking back, site search has come a long way in its evolution journey - from a simple primary search bar that can only understand simple queries, to a complex function of analytics and personalization.
With the rapid rise of eCommerce, site search will make it way loud and clear into every online store, gradually transforming from manual settings to smart AI automation.
If you haven’t paid much attention to your store search, you are missing out on a huge development trend that can uplift your sales. Don’t leave your customers to feel lost. Guide them closer to what they want by using a smart product filter & search today.
Try Boost Product Filter & Search FREE for 14 days.