With 11.8 million Australian searches conducted per month on Google, my guess is that users dependence on search engines is playing a major role in shaping our expectations for onsite search capabilities.
This is not to say that Google has created the optimal search function, on the contrary users still struggle to find what they are looking for. However there are some key learnings that we can take from Google to improve our onsite search capability which will be explored in this article. Along with this I have thrown in some others factors that are not always considered but can have a significant impact to improving onsite search.
What Google Has Taught Us
One of the key benefits of Google is its ability for users to conduct a search and results are returned instantly. This has made us a nation of impatient web users. Speed that rivals Google is of course unattainable for many but it is very important to benchmark processing speeds in your sector to ensure that your onsite search function is performing better than your competitors.
Speed Did you mean?
It’s one thing for users to type in a spelling mistake, but it is another for your site not to recognise that mistake. Google has spent a lot of time looking at this exact issue. Matt Cutts indicated in a recent article that approximately 10% of user search queries contain a spelling mistake.
So you may be thinking this is an obvious consideration. I conducted a search on 10 of the top 100 Australian sites as listed by Alexa and only 7 out of 10 had optimised their site for this issue. Of those that hadn’t 2 of them gave me hints to improve my search by checking my spelling in fine print. If I miss this I may just assume that these sites didn’t have what I was looking for.
The above rationale may not only be applied to spelling mistakes but also for acronyms.
Simple But Advanced If Needed
Users search differently and whilst some users like a quick search function to easily identify information of interest, others want to start with a more targeted/advanced search.
Google’s own Matt Cutts stated in a blog post late last year that many users do in fact click on their advanced search function demonstrating the importance of it. However even Google sometimes gets it wrong with many of its users defecting from the advanced search landing page. So what can we learn from Google;
1) It is important that naming conventions for search are self explanatory – don’t confuse your users before they have even hit the results page.
2) Too many search options can over-complicate the search function for your users. If you already have an advanced search function on your site review which fields are rarely used as this many assist you to refine your advanced search function.
For full details on Google’s advanced search page testing click here; http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2008/11/art-of-field-study.html
Other Onsite Search Tips
Google is not of course an e-commerce site, so to model your onsite search solely based on what works for search engines may negatively impact your user experience. Some additional considerations for onsite search are;
If your site needs to offer several search criteria or you have a niche offering, your users may often be faced with no results. Rather than allow user to be served with no results consider deploying techniques which enable them to determine how their search selections before the user reaches the results page. Carsales.com.au does this for its users when the visitor is selecting their make and model. To deploy such a technique requires a structured dataset however the benefit to users could outweigh the additional work involved and could increase site conversion.
No Results – Expand My Search
There is nothing more frustrating than conducting a search to be presented with few or no choices. And no matter how many products your site has, obscure user searches will always be under-catered for. Domain.com.au solves this issue well – if I search for properties in an area and there are no results based on the maximum price I have specified, Domain will provide results in surrounding areas within my price bracket. This is one way of approaching it, whilst another alternative is to provide hints to users ie if you expand “X” criteria you will receive “Y” results.
Don’t Make Me Repeat My Query
If as a user I have to come back to your site on several occasions and perform the same search query then a shortcut to my previous search is going to save me time – seek.com.au does this perfectly. This kind of functionality is useful for recruitment sites, property sites and possibly car sales sites where a user is regularly returning during a given timeframe to a search for new listings in a particular area in the case of property, or for a certain type of car or role.