Site Search. Has Yours Got Teeth?

By Abi Hough


  • People who use your website search have a higher level of purchase intent than those that are just browsing.
  • Because of this, they will on average convert 5 or 6 times more often than those just having a look.
  • Your site search needs to be on point to maximise your revenue or you could be missing out on customers who are ready to give their money to you.

The site search. Often put in the corner, out of sight and neglected like an abandoned dog, but did you know this mongrel of site functionality could actually be one of the most important features?

A Site Search needs to stalk your content and turn up the right results no matter what the user search pattern is.

Data shows that people who are using your website search often have a high inclination to actually purchase something. So, what should you be doing to make sure you optimise your site search so people find what they want with as little hassle as possible and make that all-important purchase?

1. Position is everything.

“Top right, and tiny”. Sound familiar? Hmm, I thought so. Truth is though, whilst that was an established design pattern some years ago, things have moved on. Users expect more.

Product offerings can be extensive, and in general, everyone has less time to look for what they want, let alone spending more time trying to figure out where to search in the first place.

Gap. Top Right. Tiny. Doesn’t really look like a search and low on visual hierarchy

Top Tips for great positioning:

  1. Make it visible and locate it in the same place on ALL your pages. At the top of the page is usually a good idea.
  2. Give it prominence so users can spot it immediately and understand the functionality from a glance
  3. Give it unique space. In other words, don’t place it near other boxes that do other things.

Missguided. Top Middle. Big and great identification of functionality

2. Size. Yes, it matters.

The size of your search box needs to be directly related to the customer search behaviour and what it is you’re selling. Look at your data, what search terms are people using?

Top Tips for great sizing:

  1. Look at your search data to establish the number of phrases and keywords people are using.
  2. Design your search box so that it is large enough so users can see ALL of words they are searching on.
  3. Add extra space to allow users to correct/update search terms easily.

Amazon – maximum sizing for search optimised for its vast product range

3. If you like it then you need to put a label on it.

Sounds obvious right, but if your search functionality identity isn’t 100% obvious make sure you give it some microcopy to really clarify the purpose.

This can be done in a number of ways from standard labels that reside next to the search input, or text inside the search box that gives the user hints to what they can search for and how to search. And don’t forget your call to action button, that needs love too!

Top Tips for great labelling:

  1. Make labelling clear and explanatory.
  2. Use helpful text in the site search box to explain how to search and what to search for, but make sure this help text automatically disappears when the user starts to type their search terms.
  3. The search call to action button should be labelled appropriately. “Search” is better than “Go”. And make sure if the user presses return on the keyboard it serves the same purpose as clicking on the button.

John Lewis has great labelling for its search and a sizeable box

4. Break it down.

Depending on the number of products you offer and the range of categories you have, assisting your users to narrow down their search parameters can provide a huge time saving and effort load on that potential customer wanting to buy something quickly.

Top Tips for search refinement:

  1. Let your user narrow down their search before they’ve even typed a search term. This will increase the likely hood of them finding what they want sooner.
  2. Use autocomplete to give a list of likely results based on what the user is typing. It speeds up search by providing instantaneous results, limits misspellings and reduces the chance of the user ending up with zero results found.
  3. Provide an advanced search option if your product offering is complex.

Amazon – allows you to narrow down your search category and provides autocomplete for suggested search terms. Nice work Amazon!

5. Good hygiene and performance are imperative. Always.

Whilst it is all very good to optimise the visual representation of your search on your customer-facing site, it’s also vital that the information that search is running off is to a good standard. There is little point in highlighting your search functionality if the results it produces are next to useless.

Cleansing your data and ensuring it is an accurate reflection of your products and other searchable information is absolutely vital, because if it isn’t those users who search won’t find what they’re looking for and their money will stay in their pockets.

Top Tips for good data:

  1. Check your site is not susceptible to SQL injection attacks. If it is, those that are savvy enough and with slightly dubious intentions could re-write all sorts of information in your database rendering your search (and possibly your entire site) useless. Options range from simple vandalism, to price altering or even entire database deletion.
  2. Make sure your database is properly structured, and normalised (this is complicated, but if you’re inclined, read about it here), it’ll help you get helpful data out of the search.
  3. Speed is important. Make sure your hardware / software can handle the number of search queries effectively. Limit wildcard searches to reduce the load on your server if needed.

Wildcard searches put a huge load on your server – don’t allow it!

6. Make a fail feel like a win.

Your search looks great and is producing meaningful results. But what happens (and it will happen) if a user performs a search and you can’t find what they’re looking for.

Well, first off, don’t leave them floating down the stream without a paddle. Rescue them with options and alternatives.

Top Tips for fail wins:

  1. Offer a “did you mean…” get out clause to handle potential typos.
  2. Show potential products that may fit the bill. Make it an intelligent selection (what has the user previously looked for, what are other users looking for, what’s popular, what’s the most likely option).
  3. Keep the search functionality present on the page, so if the user wants to try again they can with ease.

Amazon – all the key elements of turning a fail into a win

7. Tag it. Track it. Analyse it.

Like the rest of your site, your search is an ever-growing entity. And it can continually be improved upon provided you have the facility to analyse how it’s being used by your customers.

Top Tips for search insights:

  1. Tag all the elements a searcher may interact with so you can build up a picture of what and what isn’t working for searchers.
  2. Track everything that is useful. Keywords, categories, where search is initiated from, what happens when a user gets search results… all the major and minor interactions that will give you valuable information about your searchers behaviour.
  3. Analyse that data regularly so you can modify your search in line with customer behaviour.

Get on the scent trail and hunt down the data for invaluable insights © Pete Cairns /

Site search optimisation is a big topic, but also a really interesting one. I hope some of the top tips in this article will give you a good baseline to work from and enable you to work on optimising your site search.

Abi Hough

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