Search Illustrated: 22 Features for Site Search Nirvana

What makes for great site search?

Here are 22 features to consider to optimize your site search tool for usability, guided selling and customer satisfaction.

Search Box

1. Placement
2. Size
3. Scope

Placement

Search boxes should be easy to spot where customers expect them (top right hand corner or top center). Avoid “Search” links in navigation menus – most will scan your page for a box. Also avoid placing email sign-up boxes where a customer expects a search box – they will use it incorrectly! If you must show search and email sign-up close together, include instructions like “enter keywords” or “enter email address.”

Size

Search boxes should be long enough to accommodate longer search terms, it’s easier on your customers when they can see the bulk of their search phrase input before hitting “Search.” 30 characters is a minimum, but you can certainly go bigger.

Scope

Scoped search allows customers to search within a particular section of your site, for example Books vs. Music vs. DVDs. Sounds helpful in theory, but not always necessary. Usability research by Jakob Nielsen from over a decade ago revealed common problems, such as users selecting the wrong category to search within, or users not realizing they are searching within a scoped section, rather then the whole site (especially when one section is selected as the default, rather than “Entire Site.”)

In my opinion, it is better to allow the user to search the entire site, then narrow results by department, as Amazon allows:

One exception – if your store is bolted on to a parent site (as is common in the software industry), it’s a good idea to offer scoped search to allow visitors to search within sections like Discussion Forums, Corporate Info, Product Info and Store.

Search Tools

4. Autosuggest
5. Autocorrect
6. DId you mean?
7. Related searches
8. Search within results
9. Sort by
10. Filtered navigation
11. Advanced search

Autosuggest

Another workaround for scoped search is autosuggest, which reduces typos and helps avoid “zero results found” as suggestions are always for products and categories you carry.

Notice how Apple.com not only scopes results by site section, it also uses “rich autocomplete” by including thumbnail images.

Autocorrect

Rather than show “0 results found,” showing something can reduce abandonment. Tweaking your tool to handle misspellings saves the visitor from entering their search again and shows the “intelligence” of your site, and may instill more confidence in your search tool.

However, autocorrect can fail – for example, “camo” and “cami” are very different but they may be typos of each other. It’s a good idea to state that you don’t have any results, with suggestions of a similar spelled term, than to let the customer think your search has made a mistake.

Did you mean?

If you have many items that are close in spelling, you might opt for “Did you mean?” rather than autocorrect.

Related searches

Like autosuggest, related searches links help searchers drill down to more specific terms than they originally typed, and may offer ideas they never thought of

Search within results

Search within results is an “okay to have” but not a must. It’s easy enough for the searcher to go back and enter the refinement into the regular search box. If you are considering building this feature, I suggest using development resources elsewhere.

Keep in mind that searchers may mistake the “search within” box for the real search box. If they enter an unrelated query, they’re likely to get zero results and may leave your site.

Sort by

I’m a huge fan of “sort by” to re-order results based on what the customer values. Some folks are interested in top sellers, some in newest arrivals, some want to see top rated items first and others are price sensitive.

Filtered navigation

I’m an even bigger fan of filtered navigation. Sometimes called “guided search,” filters allow you to guide visitors to product based on product attributes that are important to them such as color, price ranges, brand, gender, size, category/sub-category, style, % off, etc. There’s no limit to how creative you can get with filtered navigation, like “filter by problem:”

It’s a good idea to include the number of results in each sub-facet in (brackets).

My favorite implementation of filters is on ASOS.com, where you can narrow by several attributes at the same time with checkboxes. Results are updated without refresh using AJAX.

Some online shops apply filters to categories but not to search results – don’t be one of them!

Advanced search

Most sites don’t need advanced search if they’ve got good filtered navigation. If your site truly needs advanced search, here are 11 tips for advanced search usability.

Search Results

12. Zero results presentation
13. View all
14. Grid vs. list view
15. Searchandizing
16. Product presentation
17. Quick view / image zoom

Zero results presentation

How you present “zero results found” is important. Contrast a page like this:

With these…

Drugstore.com does not carry the Bumble and Bumble line, but is tweaked to suggest products similar to that brand.

Sears reminds searchers of telephone, live chat and email contact options if customers need a hand, while populating results with products “related to current search.”

Victoria’s Secret acknowledges there were no search results found for “Linda Bustos,” but suggests a few possible corrections, and failing that, shows me the top 10 searches – I just may be interested in.

Of course, a little humor never hurts – if it’s in line with your brand personality…

View all

Rather than clicking through each and every page of results, it’s helpful to have a “view all” link. Every site should have this feature!

Grid vs. list view

Some sites allow you to toggle between grid and list presentation, like Home Depot:

Searchandizing

Merchandising on search pages may include keyword-triggered banners, but can also include features like best-selling items above regular search results.

The term also refers to the way you want your search results presented. Some search tools allow you to apply weighted scores to product conditions, for example, rank results based on relevance [40%], margin [20%], stock level [20%], sales velocity [10%], customer rating [10%]. Veering away from pure relevance-ranking is controversial, but it can produce “better” results, especially if your site search receives a lot of general “head” terms that return a very large number of matching items.

Product presentation

How you present your product listing can have a huge impact on click through. The more information you can expose pre-click, the better the customer can judge which products they want to view.

The worst search presentation I’ve seen in ecommerce is with large enterprise software sites. They are notorious for using Google-style presentation which serves every matching result from the entire site (even when you search only the store), with no demarcation of which are product results and which are documents. This is the extreme example of what not to do:

Newegg has a better presentation for software products – including scannable bullet points that include O/S compatibility, system requirements and return policy, along with a direct add to cart button and price/shipping information.

Radio Shack includes a brief product description, star ratings, stock availability and an “add to wishlist” button.

But presentation really depends on what will sell your product best. Software is different from cosmetics, is different than books, is different than clothing. People shop for apparel visually, and Gap’s extra large thumbnails speak more than bullet point descriptions:

Land’s End allows you to see color swatches and change the color of the thumbnail image right from search results:

QVC highlights video content, comparison tools, special offers like “Try Me Price” and persuasive value propositions like “Over 1 Million Sold” and “Customer Favorite.”

Endless includes sale prices in red and applicable shipping promos:

There’s many ways you can pimp your results presentation. Whenever possible, include price/sale price, thumbnail images and star ratings. Then, ask yourself these questions:

Choose your presentation features according to the products you sell, and use the above as inspiration.

Quick view

Quick look tools allow you to view details without leaving the search page.

It’s essentially a fully functional, pop-up product page.

Bonus features

18. Autoappend
19. Saved searches
20. Discussions
21. Subscribe by RSS
22. Check store availability

Autoappend

An alternative to paginated results and view all links, Backcountry.com autoappends results with more results when you reach the end of the page. No clicks required. The only downside is it can take a long time to scroll back to the top.

Saved searches

For some sites, saved search is a nice to have, like Endless.com (below), for others, it’s crucial – think B2B and complex sales that require product configuration.

Discussions

Apple.com and Sears integrate support and community content alongside product results. While this may clutter the page and reduce click through, it also exposes the depth of content the site offers that can support the purchase decision.

Subscribe by RSS

Some sites like Newegg and Ebay allow you to subscribe to a custom search result by RSS feed. This is especially helpful in a marketplace like Ebay where new long-tail products appear and disappear frequently.

Check store availability

Multi-channel retailer Barnes and Noble allows customers to find products in-store directly from search results. Innovative!

This collection of search features is not a checklist for perfect search, rather an inspiration board. Some of these features are must-haves – conventional search box placement, filtered navigation, sort-by tools and view all links. Not every idea in this post will be appropriate to your business or customer, but I hope it gives you some ideas of how you can improve the usability and presentation of your search results.

You may also be interested in 15 Things to Ask Your Site Search Vendor.


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