5 Lessons You Haven’t Learned From Search Engines

In April 2010, an astonishing 15 billion online searches were done in the U.S. alone, with Google (and Google sites like YouTube) accounting for over 60 percent of them. Those searches were done by people just like you and me, who are simply trying to find answers to satisfy their needs.

Other than Facebook and e-mail, searching is one of our primary daily activities online. The search interfaces and results pages we’re constantly interacting with are shaping our every day experiences and website expectations. Being the demanding online creatures we are, we expect this experience to continue being richer and more relevant.

But if your site is like most of those out there, you’re failing significantly at meeting your visitor’s ever-demanding expectations from search engines. What I’m referring to is your internal site search and the quality of the experience it provides. Everything from how easy it is to search, to the relevancy of the results, all the way to the actual display of those results. Google has countless engineers constantly tweaking its algorithm and have long realized that providing 10 blue links on a search results page was just, well…lame!

Whereas it’s unrealistic to expect you to invest the resources Google does into optimizing your in-site search experience, it’s still no excuse to turn a blind eye to the emerging trends and changing behaviors of online searchers.

It was in May of 2007 that Google launched “Universal Search” results to provide a richer experience for its searchers. Have your search results caught up to this change three years later? Now it isn’t just Google that’s setting these expectations. There’s a reason why a website like Amazon.com accounts for over 25 percent of all e-commerce transactions in the U.S.

So, it’s safe to say that there are some lessons to be learned, and here are some of them:

5 Googly Lessons to Consider

1. What did you mean? Did you mean “running shoes” when you searched for “sneakers”? Did you spell it “fouton” instead of “futon”? 

 Too many sites do not accommodate misspelling, phonetics, or synonyms, though there’s no shortage in tools that can help. What can be more frustrating than going to a site that has what you want but won’t let you find it?

2. I’ve got nothing to show you. Signs that the world is coming to an end include false prophets, a major plague, and Google displaying “0 Results Found.” Your site shouldn’t either.

If your in-site search engine is unable to match the visitor’s query with a result, suggest intelligent alternatives (extra emphasis on the intelligent part), or at the very least, offer them a list of your most popular products, best rated, etc., or even a phone number to speak to someone to help them.

A zero results page is just the geeky way of telling your visitors “Go away, I don’t want your money.”

3. KISS: Keep it simple, stupid! Google offers a simple search input box and two buttons – that’s it! Nothing fancy, no advanced search.

The advanced part is all done behind the wizard’s curtain and should stay there. Most people are intimidated by advanced search options and contrary to our hopes, have little or no knowledge of search operator commands. Put them at ease with smart links and navigation that can help drill down to find exactly what they’re looking for.

4. Are you showing enough? Chances are, you’re probably not. Think of all the different options on the new Google search interface. If I search for a black cocktail dress, I can sort my results by anything from latest arrivals, to videos, to what’s nearby.

Google Images gives you an expanded view with details of an image, simply by mousing over it. Do your results give people a “quick look” or do they have to click and move on to other pages to see product details?

5. Keep up or get out. Last and definitely not least, keep an eye out for emerging trends. People’s search behaviors will continue to evolve as they become less patient and more savvy. Be prompt in adjusting and accommodating, or your competitors will.

 So, go back to your sites and check if you’re applying any of these five best practices. If you want to learn more, join me at SES San Francisco for the Beyond the Click: What Shoppers Need Now session, where I’ll be sharing some tips and tricks you can do on the algorithm and cosmetic side of your search results pages to take your customer experience and your conversion rates to the next level.

By Noran El-Shinnawy, Jul 26, 2010

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