How to Analyze and Optimize Your Site's Search Functionality

Search functionality offers users a way to find content by searching your page and delivering them exactly what they wanted. There are many ways of measuring the success of your search functionality and I’m going to tell you about a few of them.

What is Session Recording?

Do you ever wonder how your visitors are using your site’s search function? Wouldn’t you love to know if your site’s search function is hindering a customer from finding exactly what they came for?  Session recording allows you to watch your visitor’s every scroll, click and mouse movement on your site. From the moment they enter your site to the moment they exit, their patterns are recorded for you to replay as if you are right there with the user. Monitoring their session recording as opposed to actually being with them for an in-person usability testing promises you a more honest reaction to your search function. If asked to be a subject for an in-person usability test, I know I would by on my best behavior. I would certainly approach the test differently knowing that person is peering over my shoulder hoping I perform a search with precision. However, without the knowledge or pressure of being monitored in person, to put it honestly, I simply wouldn’t care. I am guilty of showing my frustration through rapid mouse movements or furious clicking (aren’t we all?). Session recording helps identify these common user tasks and helps you evaluate if your search function is operating properly, meeting every user’s needs.

What is search functionality?

Search functionality offers users a way to find content by searching your page and delivering them exactly what they wanted. Users can locate content by typing in specific words or phrases without needing the knowledge to navigate your page thoroughly. An effective search function puts the user in control of their search for products, information, etc. When your site is growing, you want to be sure your visitors have the ability to easily explore what you have to offer, leaving the user pleased and eager to return. If your user can’t find what they want quickly, they are more likely to return to google and visit a competitor’s site than to continue browsing your website. I know, you’re site only has two or three pages or you only sell four products so why would you offer a search function? Because everyone uses shortcuts these days, and searching saves them time.  If your site doesn’t have a search function, check out this site to help you set it up. You can thank me later.

Why optimize your site search?

This seems like a no brainer. The goal of your site is to make it user friendly to overall optimize user experience. If your visitors have a hard time navigating your site or locating something your site promises to offer, chances are they won’t revisit. A user that is specifically performing a search has a goal in mind whereas a user simply browsing may just be checking out your site. This places more significant value on the search users. The last thing that you want to do as a site owner, is make the user’s time visiting your page less valuable. If you have a new website, blog, or online store, optimizing your site search may not seem like a priority though it should be at the top of your list. Nothing is more frustrating that spending more time than necessary searching for something you need and taking multiple tries to find it.

How to measure the success of your search functionality.

There are many ways of measuring the success of your search functionality and I’m going to tell you about a few of them.

Conversion rates

Perhaps one of the best methods of measurements is conversion rate because it equals the number of checkouts which is exactly what you want, right? Let’s say you have 500 visitors viewing your site daily and 100 of them become customers, you have a 20% conversion rate. Conversion isn’t an easy thing to accomplish though and of course doesn’t happen on its own. Not all visitors that come to your site came with the interest in buying. One of the best ways to improve conversion rates is to optimize your search functionality. If your conversion rate is increasing, it’s safe to assume your visitors are turning into customers and finding exactly what they wanted. If you’re bad with numbers like me, then you’ll want to check out this conversion rate calculator to calculate yours in seconds.

Average order value (AOV)

If you are running an online store, then now is the time to pay close attention. AOV is one of the most important things to be calculating frequently to determine the success of your search functionality. To simply put it, AOV is the average dollar amount spent for each online order. If you have a low AOV percentage, then your customers aren’t buying more than one product at a time, therefore your search functionality needs improvement. Each search should help lead or persuade visitors to related products or products that can be paired with your search.  Check out what the big dogs have to say about calculating AOV.

Continue rate

The continue rate measures the effectiveness of your site and it’s search function. Have your visitors made a search and if so, have they clicked on any of the results or conducted further searches? If your users not only spend a considerable amount of time on a product page but click on a product they searched for, then they are effectively engaged on your site. Continue rate is when your user conducts a search and then views a result that was listed or performs another search.

Exit rate

The exact opposite of continue rate is the exit rate. If a large number of viewers are leaving after one search, you know something’s wrong. Using session recording can help you piece together why users leave after a search by watching where the error occurs during that search. For instance, if they type “nails” and hammers and drills show in the results, your search function is less than accurate. If the user can easily find nails elsewhere, they won’t waste any more time on your site.

Best Practices for Search Functionality

Make the search box easy to spot

You want your search box to be an eye-catching feature on your site to sway users to make the decision to use it. From what I’ve seen, it seems to just be a personal preference as to where to put it at the top such to the left, middle or right of the page. In my opinion, it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s prominent and easy to locate. There seems to be a bit of a favoritism for placing the search box to the right based on an analysis conducted by blogger, Steve G. Why that is, I don’t know. Additionally, placing a search box on each page of the site reminds the visitor that the option to search is always there. The key here is to make it easier for the user to do a product search wherever they are on your site.

zara search bar
Can you even find the search box here?

amazon search
Ah, much easier to find what I'm looking for

Make the search box big enough for long phrases

For instance, some users may search for something with a long product code or description. If your search box is short in length, the text may disappear as users type, leaving room for typos, ultimately preventing them from finding the product they want. This doesn’t apply for all site, in fact I hardly ever need to type in long descriptions. However, it’s something you want to keep in mind for thorough shoppers. In a search box like the one pictured below, the sky’s the limit.

staples search bar
Staples never has to worry about people's searches getting cut off

Insert text in search boxes to motivate searches

This encourages users to begin a search and even suggests what kinds of things they may search for on your site. I’ll admit, I’m guilty of searching way more than anticipated because of those faint suggestions. It’s a trap and they get me every time! However, the text should automatically disappear once a user clicks to enter their own search. Having to delete the text can be time consuming and irritating.

pandora search bar
Wait, I can create a station from any artist, song, or genre??

Make sure the search results are accurate

Be sure that the results after each search are true to what the user searched for. For example, if the user searches “blue shirt” and the results additionally provide some random gray shirts or even blue boxers, the user won’t trust your site for future searches.

Present some social proof for credibility

This includes ratings, reviews, and scores that show other users have been pleased with the products your site offers. When I’m shopping for a product I’ve never used before, I read the reviews like it’s my job. If a site doesn’t offer reviews, wouldn’t you be suspicious and wonder if the product is really that great?

amazon customer ratings
1,630 reviews on a baking mat? I gotta check this out

Allow saved searches

Having a ‘wishlist’ or ‘save search’ function enables users to arrange products or content that caught their interest in order to refer to later or during future visits. Not being able to save items causes me to forget about them. The longer they are saved for me, the more I convince myself that I must have it.

craigslist saved search
Oh, right, I was looking at antiques earlier

Faceted sorting in search results

Many visitors may be interested in knowing what the most popular items are, what’s newest, or what’s cheapest. “Faceted sorting” or “filtering” allows customers to sort their results by particular criteria to get the results that they want quicker. This also includes but is not limited to: size, brand, color, product category.

filtered search hammer
It's simple to find the right hammer for under $20 with the filters

Provide ‘grid view,’  ‘list view’ & ‘large view’ options

Have you ever heard the saying that “no two are the same?”  The same goes for shoppers! Providing shoppers with basic options, such as how they view items on the site, will help them tailor their own results to what they find more visually appealing. Options for this include grid view (typically the default setting), list view and single stacked view. List view is used for heavy results and stacked view is mostly used in fashion when the results are big, beautiful photographs.

grid view search
the grid view here makes it easy to compare items side by side

list view search
this list view is great for getting more details for each item

Allow for errors with autocorrect

Some users may make spelling errors which leads them to “No Results,” further frustrating them and causing them to leave the site all together. Allowing your site to correct misspelling or typos not only reduces the frustration factor but makes your site more user friendly. Using my mobile device more frequently than my laptop for searches, I know I’m bound to have a typo about 99% of the time. Thank you Amazon, for always having my back!

amazon search autocorrect
Yeah, I meant "camera", obviously

Provide synonym results

It’s doubtful that your users will phrase products the same as you, especially if your targeted audience spreads across various generations. That’s why providing synonyms such as “earphones” and “earbuds” for a product will help your visitors to find exactly what they are looking for and maybe even more.

earbuds vs earphones
Both earbuds and earphones appear in the same search

Monitor searches with zero results regularly

You want to avoid your users coming to a dead end while using your site, especially during searches. If the results of their search reveals a “0”, you want to be sure your site still shows results for other searches.

zero search results
At least I can see what other fans bought

Retain the user’s search term or phrase

Building off of the previous step to ensure success would be to keep their terms or phrases in the search box so they can easily revise their search and start again. Remember, time is precious and making the user retype their search word for word can become frustrating.

nordstrom retain search term

Support SKU searches

Some customers may visit your site prepared and having done their research. If so, they may dive right into searching using the item’s SKU number instead of searching by a phrase such as “red gloves.” If your site already supports SKU number searches, does it indicate that it does so clearly?

forever 21 SKU search
Forever 21 lets you search by distinct SKU

Display related searches

A customer visits your site and types “winter coat” into your search bar. Instead of just loading a plethora of coats, displaying related searches beside or below the results may help the customer to either broaden their search to the different types and styles or point them in the direction of accessories to style with them. Giving customers an idea of the range of items you sell could lead you to successful cross-sells.

Allow search within results page

Once a visitor views their results after a search, they may want to conduct a more refined search while on that same page.

Autocomplete the word or phrase the user begins to type

This feature automatically loads possible results or alternate results related to what you’re about to search for. Many of the suggestions shown in the search box are popular searches and reduces work for users as it allows them to search quicker. My curiosity got the best of me during this search and I clicked on vegan.

autocomplete search
Wait, they have velvet boots?

Allow users to search within a particular department

This helps users to narrow their search even more. Pictured below is an example of a site that provides a drop down box with more options to the right of the actual search box.

Provide quick view options

A quick view button allows the user to view the product larger, without having to be directed to another page. If you’re super fancy, the quick view should have the option to add to cart. Staples kills two birds with one stone by offering a quick view by selecting the option to “add to cart” with a simple mouse over as shown in the left photograph.

staples quick view add to cart
you want to make it as easy as possible to add to cart

Place the search bar at the bottom of each page

One of the most irritating things when visiting a site is reaching the bottom of the page, thinking of something to search, and having to scroll all the way back to the top of the page. Placing a search bar at the top AND bottom is not only convenient, but reminds or your visitors to perform a search instead of leisurely browsing. As you can see in the screenshots below, H&M doesn’t offer a search box at the bottom of each page and only at the top. I know this because I’m an avid online shopper and am frequently slowed down by this.

H&M search bar top of page

H&M bottom of page no search bar
I guess I have to go back to the top to search again

Allow voice search

Did you know that 80% of internet users own a smartphone? I’m willing to bet many of you are reading this on your mobile right now as opposed to your desktop. We are all guilty of using our phone when we maybe shouldn’t. For example, crossing the street and yes, even driving. Therefore, relying on voice searches or anything vocal can be a life saver when using your mobile. Not only that, but if you’re anything like me, then you never seem to have two thumbs available between juggling my chapstick, a 20 pound purse, and a coffee at all times. Not only does it save me considerable time, but I don’t have to throw anything in the black hole that is my purse only to type in a search.

Auto suggest categories, popular products, etc.

Looking at the example below, BestBuy suggests products on the right related to the search I began to type. This shows me other products they have to offer and persuades me to click on them as well.

best buy auto suggest
I can already see related products while I'm still typing in the search box

Collect feedback

You wouldn’t have a website, blog, or product page if you didn’t care about visitor’s feedback. If something isn’t working for your customers and they are unable to get what they want, then let them tell you! When I visit a site that isn’t user friendly, I subconsciously think about what or how I could improve it (you know you do it, too). I know I wouldn’t go out of my way to contact the owner if it took longer than 30 seconds, maybe that’s just me. However, if the option for giving feedback were right at my fingertips, I certainly would! Kissmetrics offers the five best ways to get feedback from your customers.

Show previous searches

Well Sephora, you got me. I can’t escape that lipstick I’ve wanted for awhile now because you constantly remind me of my search. (Yes, I bought that Kat Von D lipstick in Lovecraft.)

sephora previous searches
see how Sephora keeps reminding you of what you want?

Breadcrumbs trail

This is exactly as it sounds. Breadcrumbs shows the user how they got to where they were in the search and breaks down the trail. Breadcrumbs also saves the viewer from having to clear their search and start from the very beginning. Wayfair does an amazing job showcasing this feature as pictured below.

wayfair breadcrumbs trail
sometimes I get so caught up in shopping, I forget how I got here!

Show the category of searched product in the search box

As I type in “red dress,” Amazon shows in a gray color below my search that this would be in “women’s clothing.” This is similar to breadcrumbs in that it shows me exactly how to find this product if I didn’t conduct this search.

amazon search box category
what else do they have in women's clothing?

Bigram matching

This search feature eliminates the possiblity of zero-results by correcting mistakes such as not using a hyphen, spelling errors, or phrasing variations. For example, if a user quickly searched “i phone,” Bigram would correct it to iPhone or i-Phone for relevant results.

Stemming

Stemming is the search function that allows the user to search using the stem or root of the word that could have multiple endings. Examples of this include “car”/”cars” or “child”/”children”.

My Favorite Site For Search on Desktop

Google

It’s no secret that Google knows what it’s doing. Google shopping is very appealing and shows you all of the options of filtering through the results to find exactly what you want. If I search “black dress,” I have the ability to select size type (regular, plus size, petite), department (girls, women), size, seller, brand, silhouette, color, location of the item (nearby or not), and so much more! With these options, I don’t have to waste type going to the mall again! Not only does it allow you to save products you’re “considering” but you can even organize those into shortlists on the same page. Google, I love you.

My Favorite Site For Search on Mobile

Amazon

I use Amazon Prime nearly every other day for anything and everything. From school books all the way to that dress I needed for a wedding the day before, Amazon always comes to my rescue. Using it so frequently, I’ve come to find that the mobile site is more user friendly than the desktop all because of one simple feature: the search box being placed at the bottom. Some may think this is very minor in the grand scheme of things but it’s something I as well as other visitors notice. Along with this, Amazon shows recent searches, autocomplete, lists the category of each product being searched, includes reviews, filtering, allows for errors, monitors zero results, etc. I could go on for days but as you can see, Amazon does it all. If you’re looking for an excellent model of search functionality, check them out (on mobile).