Not wishing to sound too astoundingly obvious right off the bat, but your on-site search tool is a key way in which visitors look for products on your website, especially if you carry a huge range of items. 

The surprising thing is how easy it is to get on-onsite search wrong: bad placement, lack of auto-suggest, poorly displayed search results, and so on. 

Here we’ll be looking at three top UK retailers, using specific criteria to gauge the effectiveness of their on-site search tools.

There is also a US version of this post looking at Walmart, Costco and Target.

Search box design

The search box should be consistent across all pages of the site, avoiding significant usability problems and be positioned away from any other text-boxes.

The John Lewis search box is kept dead central at the top of the page and remains throughout. The top navigation is fairly minimalist, but it’s not so subtle as to be lost.

M&S keeps its search tool on the left hand-side, which is a more typical place for it to appear. 

It remains here throughout the journey, and although it is rather small, it does expand when you click inside.

Debenhams’ search bar is more obvious purely because it’s in direct contrast with the solid black.

The design perhaps feels a little dated, but a visitor would have no trouble finding it, which is the main thing.

Auto-suggest

Automatic suggestions should appear after a visitor types several letters into a search box based on commonly searched key-phrases including common misspellings and abbreviations.

John Lewis provides me with automatic suggestions based on its most popular items, although the results displayed are only ones found that begin with the letters I type.

John Lewis also has an excellent ‘recent searches’ drop-down, which appears as soon as you click.

And although it doesn’t provide automatic suggestions if I make a misspelling, if I hit ‘search’ I am still presented with results for the correct spelling of bedding. 

Perhaps a live “do you mean ‘bedding’?” suggestion would help in reassuring searchers that it does indeed stock that item.

M&S also provides the same functionality as John Lewis (predictive text with lack of live misspelling options) but again it does provide the correct results when you click search on a misspelling.

I would suggest the text is too small here.

Debenhams’ search tool doesn’t have any kind of predictive suggestions, the text is incredibly faint when you type.

The only positive here is that, again, misspellings are accounted for on the results page.

Mobile-friendly design

The search box should adapt to work on any mobile device and screen size, and remain easily accessible throughout the journey.

None of the retailers have either a responsive or adaptive website. Instead each operates a separate mobile set.

John Lewis shows its full search box on the home page, then places within the confines of a clearly labelled symbol on the top navigation elsewhere on the site.

M&S keeps its search tool hidden behind the magnifying glass. The mobile-web savvy of us wouldn’t have a problem finding it.

Debenhams however keeps its search field visible throughout the entire mobile journey.

Effective synonym management

Search boxes should have the ability to manage alternate terms so that several different keyphrases can trigger the same set of search results (for instance: singular & plurals, earphones/headphones).

All three retailers have no problem dealing with this. I’m returned the same results for every pluralised or singular term entered in all three.

Presentation of search results

The total number of results are shown along with the search term and product images.

Everything is present and correct, with nice clear product images neatly spaced out.

M&S has some fantastic large images in its results, and the search term and number of items are boldly highlighted.

Debenhams has a very neatly laid out results page, with everything expected present. Here you get to see actual models wearing the clothes. 

This is helpful as it shows how they’ll look in the real world, but it does mean the size of the product itself is reduced.

Going back to the M&S example though, the retailer has come up with a good ‘best of both worlds’ solution, by changing the image when you hover your mouse over it.

Filter search results

Search results can be sorted and filtered by category, product, price etc.

John Lewis has plenty of options for refining by brand or category, and even has a tabbed section for most popular filters. 

M&S however wins this one with a wider array of filters, a neat colour chart and the ability to show only in-stock items.

Debenhams has effective filters too, which although not as detailed as M&S, I like the way the filter links are coloured differently from the header text. 

Search effectiveness

All relevant products are shown in the search results along with any other relevant content or help pages.

M&S delivers all possible results here, however it is John Lewis that goes above and beyond by also providing a link to additional content.

Which takes you directly to the bottom of the page where you can find the following articles.

Over at Debenhams it’s a slightly different story. You have to be more specific than usual when searching for an item to be served a page of results. For instance ‘red shoes’ or ‘black jumper’.

However when you search for ‘jumpers’ you’re presented with a generic knitwear product page.

I then have to either click on a link on the left to access jumpers, or click one of the images to filter my results. It’s not the worst hoop I’ve had to jump through, as if I was presented with a straight results page I would still have to filter, but it feels like a barrier nonetheless.

A solution to this would be if Debenhams provided me with the option to look at a specific subset of products or a landing page within the search tool. Unfortunately it doesn’t provide automated suggestions, so it’s an impossibility.

In conclusion

John Lewis and M&S have excellent search results pages, although M&S pulls in front with its easier to use filter options. John Lewis on the other hand has a much better positioned search box with slightly clearer automated suggestions.

Debenhams however is lagging behind. It needs to include predicted suggestions in its search, much more dynamic images in otherwise fine results pages and perhaps ultimately a refresh of its whole design.

Econsultancy’s Digital Transformation team helps companies identify the gaps between where they are now and where they need to be, and then closes them. Whether you need to re-engineer every process and skillset, or simply move to a new technology platform, we’ll work closely with you to develop a completely bespoke programme, addressing on the way.

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 16 February, 2015 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Andrew McGarry

Andrew McGarry, Managing Director at McGarry Fashion

A web dev friend of mine always tells me that if a user has to use the internal search box, your website design has failed. The argument is that it is the place of last resort. I never looked at it that way before but I appreciate the sentiment.

So instead of optimising your internal search, you could ask - why is my nav so inadequate that users think it would be faster to not use it?

In terms of SEO, there's nothing quite like a poorly implemented 3rd party internal search product to mess everything up. Some of the 3rd party solutions on the market have not done their clients any favours and their marketing is largely ignorant of this fact.

For the bigger players listed in this post, you'd expect them to do a great job with internal search given their budget & resource levels. Would be perhaps more interesting to see how startups and mid-level SMEs tackle it.

almost 3 years ago

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Dave Holland, Managing Director at Deeho Limited

I agree with Andrew McGarry.... if your visitors need to use your search feature then your navigation has failed to do its job properly

almost 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

Hi Andrew,

Your friend's point is interesting, but I think there are clear cases for using site search, such as when visitors arrive with a specific item in mind.

We'll have a look at some SMEs and site search, but the big guys don't always get this stuff right.

almost 3 years ago

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Dave Harris, Job Title at SMD

Andrew, your web dev friend is correct up to a point - his argument applies to small sites. Once sites grow big (dozens of categories and thousands of products) feeding it all though UI alone isn't feasible because customer journey would become too complicated (akin to traversing directories on your computer).

Also, show him metrics (like CR) for people who use internal search vs. those who don't. That'll make him think.

almost 3 years ago

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Kevin Sparks, Commercial Director at FACT-Finder (UK) Ltd.

Everyone has made some interesting and valid points but I tend to agree that search is pivotal to all medium and large retailers to cater for the masses of customers that have specific requirements in mind and the CR for that very metric speaks for itself.
UI or navigation alone cannot assimilate massive volumes of product data and return relevant results in milliseconds - only search can do that and in today's demanding world - it’s all about convenience and speed.

almost 3 years ago

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Georg Spielmann, E-commerce consultant and project manager at Fredhopper

Just a technical point, but plural and singular matching should not be confused with the ability to handle synonyms (earphones = headphones).
The method used to handle plural and singular is called stemming and should be standard with any good internal search engines. Some search engines use a similarity approach instead of stemming, which leads to the problem that they can no longer discern between a plural/singular match or a spell correction, therefor they can't give you any feedback that your search was corrected if you did a typo...
I know it's a bit technical but important to not throw 2 completely different things in the same basket, because all commercial search engines can handle synonyms but not all search engine handle plural/singular in the same way.

almost 3 years ago

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Sarah Edwards, Business consultant at SE Consultancy

Well written and interesting article. I' m keen to understand how the search return is generated and then ranked. Most websites seem to default by 'most popular' or ' best seller'.

almost 3 years ago

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