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Posted on October 11, 2013 at 11:43 am
Did You Know?
When visitors go to your website, 43% of them immediately use the search function and 80% of users will leave your website if they don’t get what they need from your search. Such statistics prove how important having a good internal search is for driving and keeping traffic to your website.
Before we discuss search, let’s clarify what search actually means. It is important to distinguish the difference between “internal search” and “external search,” which is also known as “third-party search.” Internal search refers to how search functions within your own website. External search is how others search to find your website. There are different methods and procedures for each of these searches, and sometimes they even cross paths, but it’s important to point out that these searches are separate and unique. The research and findings we are presenting in this article are geared towards internal search.
In order to really understand internal search, you have to understand user behavior. Rarely does a user go to your website just to browse. Users generally approach search in two different ways:
1. Specific: They know exactly what they are searching when they go to your site.
2. Generic: They kind of know what they are looking for, but their search terms are more vague.
The common thread that links these two different kinds of users together is they both want a fast, efficient search engine that provides relevant results. Doesn’t sound too difficult right? Wrong. Search is very complex and a good internal search takes time, effort and skill to implement. But in order to understand this, we have to start at the beginning with what you, the user, expects from search.
Recalibrate Your Expectations
What is the first search engine that comes to mind when you hear the word search? Google! Google has spoiled all of us with their search algorithms (formulas that manipulate data to provide results) and has made the experience of searching so easy and enjoyable, we can’t imagine ever not having a search like Google. For example, I typed into Google “what am I looking for,” and before I could even think about what I was looking for, Google told me! (see image below) But, unless you are an e-commerce site or a subsidiary of Google or Amazon, it doesn’t make sense to try and duplicate this kind of external search for your website. Yes, Google’s search is fantastically robust — fast, efficient and predictive, presenting search terms even before you do. When you think about the average corporate website, what you want for your search may not necessarily be what you need. When building a list of search requirements, first assess your website goals and match those against your search engine specs.
Common Site Searches
Why are search results so often frustrating? Ever Google yourself? Our clients do and when they do, they want their names not just to be the first result; they want it to be the only result. Of course, the searched-for name will appear, but may be one among five. Why is that?
Search results depend on search structure. The two most common site search structures are AND and OR searches. Imagine you are looking for an article about Patent Litigation and in the same database are two other articles, one for Securities Litigation and one for Patent Portfolio Management.
A) Securities Litigation
B) Patent Litigation
C) Patent Portfolio Management
If I search for “Patent Litigation” in an AND search, I would get result B because only this article in the group contains both the words “Patent” and “Litigation.” If I search for “Patent Litigation” in an OR Search, I would get all three articles because search finds the word “Patent” and the word “Litigation” in every title (or in the text). This example displays why many users feel they either get no results from an AND search or too many results from an OR search. In either case, the results are unsatisfying. An AND search returning no results is particularly maddening when you absolutely, positively know there is an article that matches your search.
So What’s Possible?
You can lease and incorporate a Google-type search in your website, but it can potentially become quite costly. Google’s pricing depends on the number of search queries your web¬site gets which, depending on your number, can cost you more than $2,000 a year. Although fast and accurate, clients might not always feel the value aligns to the cost. And, after a year or two, they end up cancelling their subscription. This should remind all of us that extraordinary search requires hundreds of programmers working on search algorithms in a constant effort to mimic the way we think. Expensive, right? Google’s scale makes that investment worthwhile on the Internet, but local to your site, the result does not match the fee. Remember, as an “external” or “third-party” search, Google can and does play by its own rules, so they have the power to remove any feature, anytime they want. Google could very well leave you and your search standing with your bags by the side of the road.
Other Variety Searches
There are other features of search within Google or otherwise that are available, one example is autocomplete. Based on your content, the autocomplete function suggests search terms as the user types in content real-time. Providing alternative suggestions ensures some kind of search results. This kind of search handles misspellings or synonyms a search engine might not support. In the screenshot above, I typed in “lapt” and got the following results right away. The price to incorporate autocomplete into your search varies, depending on your CMS and its limitations. This is one alternative option if you are thinking of ways to expand your internal site search.
We suggest a combination of section searches, keyword frequency and SEO tags with a concentration on filtering to create faster more relevant results. So, instead of an AND or an OR search, combine the two. In addition to a blank search field, add fields, perhaps, one for news type and one for service areas. If I enter “patent” in the search field and then choose “article” from the news type dropdown and “IP” from the practice area dropdown, I will get the result I want. More filtered results = more relevant results. Below is an example of a filtered search we did for the professional sections for one of our clients.
Let’s Talk About Keywords
As important as managing your search structure, anticipate keywords. Including multiple fields in every section makes any kind of search, whether that be an AND or an OR search, more valuable. Being able to predict relevant keywords and phrases your web visitors will use is critical to improving your search results. Tag these. You need to intervene on topics of strategic importance to your organization. In other words, not everything can be automated.
How Search Delivers Its Results
No results or bad results makes users want to pull their hair out. We’ve learned how we can improve the results themselves, but their display is also a source of frustration. The results page can be as detrimental to user experience as the search itself. To help:
• Results should always display the total number of items retrieved. This should be spelled out so if I search “lawyers” with “medical malpractice,” I get a header that says “your search for lawyers and medical malpractice has produced x results.”
• Rather than just showing a title in your search results, provide a description, URL, date and even an image.
• Display results in order of relevance. If the first items listed in my results are not relevant to my search, will I even know I should keep searching down the page? Once again, Google has spoiled us.
Below is an example of how we displayed search results for one of our clients.
1. Don’t expect Google performance.
2. Understand and plan for the difference (and shortcomings) of AND or OR site searches.
3. Use filtering and dropdowns to increase specificity of searches and relevant returns.
4. Use SEO tags and keywords to increase relevancy.
5. Design display results to help the searcher.
6. Use Google Analytics to learn and adapt to how users search your site.
There are different ways to approach site search, but to know what’s right for you, know your goals and your audience. Use Google Analytics to get details about visitors and the keywords and phrases they use when searching your site. Study where users are leaving your site. If you notice an increased exit rate on your search results page, you know it’s time to rethink your search strategy.
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