April 09, 2007

How to Improve Your Site’s Internal Search & Lift ROI - 9 Strategies & Tips

SUMMARY: Getting search right is critical to reaching your customers and prospects, but the challenge isn’t limited to commercial search engines. The most important searches are often the ones users perform on your own website.

MarketingSherpa data reveals that 43% of visitors who land on a website go immediately to the search function. And customers who use the search box on ecommerce sites convert at nearly three times the rate of general browsers.

How can you improve your internal search features? We asked an expert for his top nine suggestions.

Internal search isn’t a feature that marketers pay enough attention to. It’s often left to the IT team or Web designers, who don’t always think critically about what data is retrieved and how it’s displayed to maximize the conversion potential. In fact, according to MarketingSherpa's Search Marketing Benchmark Guide 2007, 52% of marketers give their internal search tool a 'D' or 'F.'

“The last people who understand search are designers,” says Martin White, Managing Director Intranet Focus and author of the new book ‘Making Search Work.’ His clients include Rolls-Royce, Discovery Networks and Oxfam.

But marketers really need to pay attention to internal search. For ecommerce marketers, it’s proven to lift conversions, while business users are similarly motivated when entering a specific search for product information, technical specifications, white papers or other information on a B-to-B website.

We asked White how marketers can tweak their internal search functions.

-> Strategy #1. Anticipate key users’ search behavior

Good search design starts by creating categories of typical website users, called personas, and then predicting how they will interact with your site. Issues to consider:

o What topics are different users interested in?
o What kinds of questions will they ask?
o How will they look for information on your site -- through navigation functions or search?

To determine which users you need to design search around, follow the 80/20 rule: work out the four to five groups that represent 80% of your traffic. For example, the US government’s home page, http://www.usa.gov, has channels for citizens, businesses and nonprofits, government-to-government and federal employees (see creative samples below).

-> Strategy #2. Never show users a blank results page

Even if a search returns zero results, you don’t want to send those users away from your site. Give them options to help continue navigating or, as White suggests, provide a feedback form that alerts your company webmaster.

A valid search term should always return a match of some kind, so a search with zero results might indicate a problem with your search engine. According to MarketingSherpa data, offering suggested options if no results or misspelled query was the second-most requested tool by marketers.

White remembers one client whose search engine couldn’t retrieve any information on the company’s managing director. It turned out that those files were in PDF form, and the search engine was not using the proper software to pull data from PDF files.

-> Strategy #3. Use search terms visitors will use

Internal searches must deliver the right information, but the terms your company uses to describe certain products or types of information may not be the same ones your customers typically use. To maximize the effectiveness of search terms, White suggests three tips:

Tip #1. Recognize common typos. Most good search software comes with built-in dictionaries that automatically recognize typos and offer suggestions for correct spellings. But make sure you’ve added key product names or other unique terms that won’t appear in a standard dictionary.

Tip #2. Understand the term users meant to use, not necessarily what they actually entered. Customers often don’t know the complete name of a product or a category of information, so anticipate the typical shorthand.

For example, in a previous career White worked in metallurgy and remembers people routinely requested information about titanium. But titanium is almost never used commercially by itself, so what they were really looking for was information on titanium alloys. Knowing this, he was able to give them valid information about titanium alloys, not the metal itself.

Tip #3. Recognize synonyms and different international terms. Think of an ecommerce website that needs to fulfill requests for a product or category that has a range of applicable terms -- “outerwear” or “coats” or “jacket,” for example. All sites need to recognize such synonyms or related terms.

Likewise, if you have an international customer base, you have to recognize certain regional or country-specific phrasing. For example, customers in the United Kingdom looking for information on gasoline would use the term “petrol.”

-> Strategy #4. Contextualize search results

Returning too many search results can be just as big of a problem as no results. White says several studies have shown that users rarely look beyond the first three to four pages of search results. With the typical results page showing only 10 items, this means customers won’t see anything past the first 30 or 40 results.

(Note: MarketingSherpa's own research in this area suggests the window of opportunity may be even narrower. While some users will drill deeper, there's a marked drop-off after the first page, especially for non-ecommerce sites. Depending on the product category, you may have only one page of search results in which to make the sale.)

-> Strategy #5. Organize results accordingly

Visitors who use your internal search box are motivated -- they’re either under a time crunch (and don’t want to navigate the site manually) or they know exactly what product they want to buy, contact person they’re looking for or information to download. Here are three steps to help serve that urgent need:

o Organize results in categories. When a search turns up hundreds of results, consider organizing those results by category, such as press releases, white papers, technical specifications, financial documents or other information source.

Another option is to break down the list of results by topic. For example, the website Nature.com asks users if they want to refine searches for broad terms, such as “nanotechnology.” A menu on the right side of the page offers to find results for nanotechnology related to subjects such as clinical medicine, chemistry and biotech."

o Make your advanced or refined search function user friendly. Advanced search features are supposed to help users better target their searches, but too many sites make these functions unnecessarily wonky and technical. “It comes back to understanding how people might search the website, rather than a smart software engineer saying, ‘We’ve got 52 fields in the database, let’s give them 52 options for an advanced search,’ ” White says.

Instead, consider the parameters that users might be interested in when refining a search -- such as geography, date, type of content, business line or industry sector -- and create options that would sort results accordingly.

o Show the search term in its context when displaying results. Besides a link, results should either include a good summary of the information or display a few sentences around the search term.

-> Strategy #6. Pay attention to page layout and display options

Although a vertical list is the most common way to display search results, some ecommerce sites opt for a horizontal or grid approach. Calling ecommerce sites “a bit of a law unto themselves,” White says most search functions should stick with the vertical display.

How you rank that vertical list, though, is equally important. At minimum, you must give users the option to rank results by date or by relevance. “The most recent document may not be the most relevant,” White says.

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples of good and bad internal search pages:

Intranet Focus Ltd.:

Martin White’s blog:

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