Helen Ross 12 January 2017 6 min read

Googling is not just for Google Pt 1

Just as Hoovering became another way to talk about vacuuming, and Kleenex became the thing I reach for every time I watch Toy Story 3, Googling has become another way to talk about searching. It’s that interest in forward movement and the constant change of the web that led me to today’s post.


One of the things I love about my job is getting asked questions I never would have thought of myself. I was asked one of those recently about the search tool on a customer's site and - like it so often does - it sparked a train of thought I just needed to satisfy. So the Googling for knowledge began... 

Search is a big component to every ecommerce site. So big that you could dedicate a full time employee to it if you didn't have some specific direction in mind. With the enormity of that I started looking at what there was that my customers could do to get the most out of the time they spent working on search. Everyone needs a little bang for their buck, so I wanted to know what the biggest things were. 


The good news is that there's a lot of knowledge out there. The better news is that I did the digging for you. The best news is that everything I’m about to tell you is possible with some help from Lucene (the search engine utilised by Commerce Vision).  In this piece I'd like to share the what of my research. I'll be posting a how blog next week for those who'd like to play along at home, so stay tuned for the nitty gritty details. For now let's keep it high level. 


Some important things to consider before we start:

  • Today, many users go straight to search without browsing the site
  • It is not uncommon for users to search for things other than products
  • The best results will always come with understanding your users and what their particular search habits are


I want to try and keep this post as on point as possible so I'm going to limit myself to 5 of the most important things to look at with search. 


#1: If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck but doesn't look like a duck... how do you know it's a duck?

In other words: users expect a search to look a particular way and to show in a particular spot. When web-reality doesn't meet their expectations in the fundamentals like these design elements they quickly get frustrated and can leave before beginning. There are some great suggestions in some research I found that has a few key points:

  • It should be at the top of the page
  • Search should be a box and not just a link or button
  • It should be long enough to display the average search term relative to your user base


#2: Calling a spade a shovel

There's two parts to this one, but I wanted to address the simpler of the two first. When a user knows what they want this is great news… most of the time. A study of 50 of the top ecommerce sites in America found that a truly surprising number (to me at least) didn't support searching by product number/name. From a user experience perspective that really makes me cringe. After all, if that's what you call it, why shouldn't I (as your user) be able to find it?


It's all well and good to be able to navigate categories, but if I know exactly what I'm looking for I should be rewarded for that by having it in front of me faster, not penalised! So allowing a user to search by both product name and product code is really important.


#3: Calling a shovel a spade

Onto part two of this we go, and  one of the elements  of search methodology I am really passionate about.


It can be presented as "Did you mean", or "suggested", or just "autocorrect" and it's all about recognising  your customer is a person, not a dictionary. While you may be able to spell all of your products right every time (after all, you see them every day!) your customers may not. Adding in obvious translations for misspellings can be a vital tool to maintain a good experience for a user who may have only heard about a product and never seen it written down. 


This study showed that 18% of the ecommerce sites reviewed required a user to know the exact spelling of a product to get a result. A single character wrong meant no results and frustrated customers. Adding in these translations can make a big impact on your customer happiness - and potentially your sales. Since that can be a pretty big task I always encourage clients to focus on those big sellers first and work your way down based on the ROI for time spent. 


#4: It's not a spade, it's a ShovelMaster 5000

Ok, I admit I'm having a little bit too much fun with these titles, but I promise this one has a good point.


Say you have a customer who shops with both you and your competitor and you both stock the same product. The customer can only remember the SKU for your competitor, so they type that in. Instead of returning no results, you return your own product (which is listed under a different SKU). The customer gets what they're looking for without needing to re-search multiple times to find the right product and you get the sale.


Being able to cater for these kind of alternative names for your products and their codes can be invaluable to time poor consumers who just want the simplest way to get what they want. You can just do the SKUs or, if you have products that have a high enough turn over to warrant the initial time investment, you can also give them complete alternative names (so what you call a Shovel will still return when a consumer searches "Spade"!). 


#5: If you'd like a wine the merlot is especially nice, sir

Even if a user knows what they want there are things you can do to make that searching experience even better for them, and autocomplete is one of those.  In a world where time efficiency is king having a search auto populate suggested results as I enter my query string is a great little time saver. 


Research on this one suggests that autocomplete can be a great boon to your site, but you need to be careful not to get overzealous. A great way to start is with simple things like your product names. It's always a balance between being helpful and a user feeling like you're being pushy. The exact tipping point is going to be different for each industry so my advice here would be to collect feedback from your users. After all, they're the ones using your site. 


Phew! Cutting those down to 5 key points was a little difficult as search is such a big area but I hope there's at least one titbit you can take away from here to help you and your users out. Don't worry if you don't know how to do all of the above yourself yet. Next week we'll be going step by step through each of the above points and showing you how you can get them website-ready for your users. 


To leave you with something to think about: I like to think of search on each of our sites as its very own mini-Google. Within my own personal life, I use Google to search for most things I need (especially that pumpkin soup recipe I keep losing) and your search is the same. With a few nudges in the right direction you can start delivering exactly what users want, in the way they want it, and that's exceptionally powerful.