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An effective site search function on an e-commerce site has a number of potential benefits. Customers are accustomed to finding results quickly and (mainly) accurately from search engines, and will expect a similar experience on e-commerce sites. 

On e-commerce sites, up to 30% of visitors will use the site search box, and each of these users is showing a possible intent to purchase by entering product names or codes. 

Here are some tips and examples showing best practice in search box placement and design... 

Why do retailers need site search? 

  • Improved sales. Effective site search means better usability, so customers can find things more quickly. This can translate into higher sales, as customers who find what they are looking for easily are more likely to make a purchase, while site search also offers opportunities for merchandising. 

  • Higher conversion rates. More intuitive search and navigation means higher conversion rates.
  • Increased site usage. A better user experience means that customers are more likely to spend more time on the site, and can boost the number of registrations and return visits.
  • Improved customer retention and loyalty
. More loyalty as customers know they can find products more easily. 

  • Improved branding
. Improving user experience means more customer satisfaction, and a better customer journey compared to competitor websites.
.


Site search best practices

Offer a site search function

"What incredible insight" you're thinking, but you'd be amazed that some big name e-commerce sites don't actually offer this. 

The following sites have no site search at all, which is bonkers. 

H&M: 

At least it has some decent filtering options...

Gap: 

No site search box, and the top nav is so subtle it's easily missed. I wonder how people find anything. 

Position of search boxes

Navigation, including site search boxes, should be visible across the entire site, so that visitors can move around easily, whichever page they happen to arrive at. 

Retailers should place the site search box in a prominent position on the page so visitors can find it easily. 

Most e-commerce sites place the search box near the top of the page, above the main navigation bar, as in the example below from Best Buy.

As this is where visitors will expect to find the search box, it makes sense to place it somewhere at the top of the page. 

According to Depesh Mandalia, Head of Conversion & Product at ticket.com:

There is a standard for search boxes to be placed in the top right of websites. Creating familiarity here speeds up the shop and reduces customer thinking time. Keep it simple and easy to find.

Make it easy to find

It needn’t be the most visible item on the page, but users should be able to find it quickly when they arrive at a page and scan around. Different positions should be tested to find which generates the most queries. 

On these examples from John Lewis and Net A Porter, the search box blends in to the page, and is harder to spot as a result. 

John Lewis:

site search

Net A Porter: 

Position the search box away from other boxes

Don't confuse customers by placing it too near other boxes, such as newsletter sign-ups or postcode searches for stock info. 

Labelling of the search box

It should be obvious what the search box does, so label it clearly. 

The use of colour to label Play.com’s site search makes it more likely to attract the visitor’s attention, and also doubles as a useful call to action. 

However, using the word 'search' instead of 'go' may may the purpose even clearer.

Another option is to use the magnifying glass icon, which is becoming commonplace on e-commerce sites. 

Text in the site search box

The text within the box can be used to explain the function of site search to customers. 

For example, the text in the Tesco search box tells customers that they can search for products by keyword, or by product code from a catalogue, or even enter a location to find details of their nearest store. 

Make the text disappear

Retailers should also use JavaScript to ensure that the default text in the box disappears as users click to enter their own search term. Don’t force them to delete the text before they can begin, as this is incredibly annoying. 

Let people search using the enter key

This is much easier than having to move the cursor and click the 'search' button. 

Size of site search box

This is an area that is worth testing, and the size required will depend on the type of products sold on the site and customer search behaviour. 

If customers are entering search terms of two or more words then the box should be large enough so that users can see the whole term they are entering.  

This means that users can correct any errors and misspellings if they need to, as they can see the search term in full. 

Amazon uses a search box which is large enough to deal with lengthy queries, such as the make, model and serial number of an electrical product. 

Place a site search box on each page of the site

Having a search box on each page makes it easy for customers to get back to a product search from any point, and also provides an alternative method of navigation for users that arrive at product pages. 

However, placing a site search box within the checkout process can provide a distraction for customers when they should be concentrating on making a purchase, so this is one area that doesn’t need one. 

Allow users to narrow searches before they begin

Tesco provides a drop-down menu so that customers can limit the scope of their search to one section of the site. 

This instantly avoids returning lots of results that are irrelevant for the user, as well as making it more likely that they will find what they are looking for. A useful feature for sites with a large number of SKUs. 

Use auto-complete  

Some retailers use an auto-complete tool which begins to offer suggestions when users have entered a few characters into the search box. 

This has a number of advantages: it speeds up the search process for users, it helps them to avoid misspellings, and it also ensures that customers’ searches will return a product result. 

According to Matthew Curry, E-commerce manager at Lovehoney: 

In my experience, autosuggest provides a real boost to search conversion rates. In a usability test I ran, we found that users actually relied upon site search autosuggest and autocorrect to know the correct spelling of words for them. Make sure that your site search solution is up to scratch, and that you still provide search results for common misspellings, just in case. 

In this example from Waterstones, shoppers who can’t remember the spelling of a famous Russian author’s name only need to get the first four or five letters right. 

 

The same principle applies for travel sites, where users may be unsure of the spellings of some results. Well-implemented auto-complete can save customers a lot of effort, and speed up the search process. 

Link to advanced search options

The LA Times links to advanced search options as soon as you begin to type in a query. (HT: SLI blog for the example).

Since the newspaper has a lot of content, it makes sense to allow the user to search in more detail. 

In the next post in this series, I'll look at site search results pages, and the kinds of features and options users would expect to see there. Meanwhile, please let me know if I've missed any essential tips here...

Graham Charlton

Published 25 July, 2012 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (27)

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Darren

Good break down of the uses and guide to a good search.
One thing that I didnt see ont here is using the search as a form of site search not just product. Ie, allowing users to search for 'Delivery' as a keyword and then auto forward the user to the Delivery page.

about 4 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@ Darren That's a really good point, I'll make sure I cover that in the next post on site search results. I guess the same principle applies to returns, customer service etc.

about 4 years ago

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Lyndon NA (The Autocrat)

Site Search is an integral navigational element.
Admittedly - it isn't a simple one, esp. for things like ecommerce.

There are benefits beyond those listed as well;

* You can get some real insights into what/how your users term/word things - which can allow you better targeting.

* You can compare search data with SEO data,
and utilise it for improved SEO and targeting.

* You can see what the more popular/frequent searches are - which can help you adjust other navigational elements for improved user experience.

* You can spot search trends, and if you script it, automate presentational elements to suit popular trending searches.

* You can see what searches occur after items are added to baskets/carts - and see if there are relationships.
If so, you can add links directly to those items, (or add "quick add" sub items), for improved experience.

There's likely more you can do as well,
but those are normally enough to keep developers busy, site owners puzzled and users happy :D

about 4 years ago

Matt Clarke

Matt Clarke, Ecommerce Director at B2B

Following on from the above comment, another really useful thing to measure from internal site search systems are zero result searches.

When users enter a particular term for which the search engine has no results, you can write this into a Google Analytics event and log the things your customers couldn't find.

Analysing this data can be a handy way of spotting products you should be selling, as well as a way to help improve your search aliases. For example, if your customers are entering the word "jersey" instead of "jumper" you can add an alias so searches for "jersey" show the results for "jumper".

about 4 years ago

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Maxine Green

Another common issue with site search results is not being able to filter by the type of content... Whilst looking for a product, the search facility often returns news items, blog posts etc.
This functionality could be added prior to the search (similar to the narrowing by product type mentioned earlier) or at least displayed in clear sections in the search results.

about 4 years ago

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Damir Plejic, general manager / owner at ResPons Digitus

Good insight and comments. Here is some more.

Sometimes users search for the whole category, not for the product. On shops with large catalogues, It is useful to search for category and/or subcategory name match and to display the pre-set template with the link to the selected page.

Also, one of the clients asked for the custom SERPs. When user search for the product that is not in the catalogue, the site offers a substitute. This one requires some additional coding and CMS editable result pages.

about 4 years ago

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Stuart McMillan

Interesting article, I have one small suggestion about the "Make the text disappear" section; it would be better if the text in the search box was actually added by JavaScript, if JavaScript is going to take it away, that way if JavaScript is turned off, the user won't have to delete the text. I guess one caveat is that it needs to be obvious what the box is for without the text.

about 4 years ago

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Shaun Ryan

Good article Darren. Funnily enough I have just finished a webinar on site search where I covered most of these points (it will be available for download from our site if anyone wants to see it).

I think sites that don't have site search link Gap and H&M are avoiding it because they struggle to build a good experience with search and so just give up. I think it's a huge mistake. Typically our customers report that people who search will convert at 2-3x the rate of people that don't. Admittedly I'm biased, but I agree with you - you should have search and you should invest in improving it.

about 4 years ago

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Mick Malkemus

Hi.

Excellent post. I'm wondering if there is a free search bar for eCommerce sites? The Google option starts at $100 for 20,000 searches per year. I'd like to provide this information to my readers, if it exists. If not, my company may have to attempt a solution.

Thanks. Mick

almost 4 years ago

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Mark Bolitho, New Business Director - Ecommerce at more2

Good shout about using the return key to activate a search Graham.

I was under the impression a site I was using recently had a broken search until I physically clicked on 'search' after a few attempts.

It's really poor usability to not allow both methods as I think people expect it to work either way and will quite likely bounce if they see no results after hitting the return key.

Cheers,
Mark.

almost 4 years ago

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Mark Brixton

Something else to track is 'searches with poor results'. What are your customers looking for on your site and expecting to find? It maybe that you don't stock that product, have enough product range of the product being looked for or, most importantly, it may be that the language of the user differs from that used to describe your products.

Good Article.

A free white paper on site search can be found here: http://www.sli-systems.com/ebooks/download-sli-ebooks

almost 4 years ago

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Depesh Mandalia, Head of Digital Marketing at Lost My Name

Following on from Matt's point, related to search results, its worth noting zero search results for things your customers are looking for that you DON'T stock - i.e. your customers expect you to sell them - this could be a general line (for retail) a destination (travel) or any other product - I've found gems here in the past that would complement existing retail lines

almost 4 years ago

Albie Attias

Albie Attias, Ecommerce Director at King of Servers Ltd

Another nugget to add to the collection involves the no results found page. How often do we still see the incredibly helpful 'No results found' message? No matter how sophisticated your site search tool is, there will always be searches that return no results. Make sure you gear your 'no results found' page to offer helpful suggestions. I'm not just talking about tips on restructuring the search query. Links to popular products, categories or pages are always helpful.

almost 4 years ago

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Depesh Mandalia, Head of Digital Marketing at Lost My Name

Adding adsense to a no results page can be lucrative too if you really don't have the item they're looking for in your inventory

almost 4 years ago

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Lyndon NA (The Autocrat)

You know - it's not often that I look at comments and feel impressed.

This is one of those times.
It's great to see others thinking outside the box.

Infact, theres enoguh here for Graham to do a followup article :D

almost 4 years ago

Matt Clarke

Matt Clarke, Ecommerce Director at B2B

@Mark We discussed the relevance and positioning of products within site search results on the Econsultancy MSc earlier in the year. It was suggested that some retailers were using their web analytics systems to record the positions of products within search results, examining the click-through and conversion rates gained, and then adjusting their positions based on performance. Basically they're training a predictive model to show the products most likely to be purchased when a particular search term is entered, and then adjusting the default sort order by optimising for conversion rate/CTR. Does anyone know any retailers doing this? It sounds brilliant.

I built a webservice which allows a similar thing to be achieved using Google Analytics data. It's rather more basic, but it does add an element of recommendation/prediction to the results. If someone searches for a particular term in your on-site search, you can add in recommendations based on the prediction, or even change the sort order of results. It also minimises the likelihood of a search returning zero results, since it can display the closest recommendation available, which should have a higher conversion rate than displaying nothing.

almost 4 years ago

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Depesh Mandalia, Head of Digital Marketing at Lost My Name

@Matt yes I do (I led this) but you'd have to contact me in private for details!

almost 4 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@lyndon yep - there's a follow up on the way. I also appreciate all the great comments.

almost 4 years ago

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TheStartupmeme

Good article to bring the problem of internal site search into picture. I think this should also be applied for tech blog post search. Sometimes it become really difficult to search a post on a tech blog esp via tumblr. Can we have some article or comments focussing on this area as well?

almost 4 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Morning all,

@mattclarke

There are many retailers using search learning but many are using a 3rd party solution instead of doing this via analytics and finding a way to automate using their existing systems.

A good example is SLi Systems Learning Search - brands like Boden use this. I've had a demo from them and it's actually a really neat solution where search results are effectively hosted externally by SLi but surfaced within the website so it doesn't disrupt the user journey.

Take a peek at http://clothing.boden.co.uk/search?w=shirt&asug=&af=cat1%3Awomen

The solution learns from search behaviour and click through/conversion data to constantly refine what is returned for individual search queries.

Thanks
james

almost 4 years ago

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Damir Plejic, general manager / owner at ResPons Digitus

@James Gurd - The system could also learn to remove "Search" when clicked in the box - tip "Make the text dissapear".

almost 4 years ago

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Eric Gockel

Graham,

what's the URL for the Gap.com screenshot that you're showing? I see a search box in the upper right hand corner (are you outside of the US or something)?

While the Gap.com mens section has section filters along the sidebar, your screenshot comparison isn't exactly fair. You're showing the men's hub http://www.gap.com/browse/subDivision.do?cid=5065 the first page you see when clicking "mens" in the menu. H&M's is even more useless when you click "mens" in the nav bar
http://www.hm.com/us/department/MEN

If you click the 'men' link in the breadcrumb trail, you'll then get to your screenshot, which is more like the equivalent of http://www.gap.com/browse/category.do?cid=11900 on Gap.com which *does* have filters across the search results.

almost 4 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Eric Hi - yes, that URL is from Gap.eu: http://www.gap.eu/browse/division.do?cid=56726

It seems we Brits don't get a site search box ;)

almost 4 years ago

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louie gray

Is there a difference between filtering option and site search? I have encountered sites with filtering option and it helps me to make my searching easier. Or it would be better if I would use both?

almost 4 years ago

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ElasticSearch

using a site search application or box is really helpful especially for people who do not have enough time scanning all of the information on a site, so instead of spending lots of time on the site, they will just search important information using the application or search box.

over 3 years ago

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Michael Brakney, CTO at Devbusge

Pretty good article. I agree that a lot of ecommerce sites buy SaaS site search from 3rd parties. I think it is the best way to be ensured that it works properly. My few colleagues work with www.searchnode.net. They have really good technology and prices.

over 2 years ago

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Kriti Sarda, Content Marketer at Unbxd

Interesting post Graham!

Apart from these points, site search experience can be improved by making your search context aware, i.e. to understand the intent of the visitor's search. For example, if a visitor is looking for a table lamp, he may get irrelevant results containing round table, centre table etc if the intent of search is not understood.

I've written a similar post which covers some more ways to maximize the site search results with examples. You can check it out here -
http://unbxd.com/blog/10-essentials-to-maximise-site-search-results/

about 2 years ago

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