Onsite Search: An Overlooked and Under-Utilized Marketing Tool

Onsite search, as important as it can be, is often neglected. Enhance the user experience with an onsite search feature on your site.

You search and you think you’ve scored. You click.

“Hello website. I thought you’d show me what I came here for. Where is it?“

It must have happened to you. You land on a site and there’s no clear signal as to where the information you’re after is and the navigation choices confound you.

As content marketing takes hold, nearly every marketing-driven website offers a ton of pages. Visitors can get frustrated fast—and you know what that means. Bye-bye.

onsite search

Onsite search will help engage your visitors.

Onsite search, as important as it can be, is often neglected.

Placing an onsite search feature on your home page and throughout your site can be enormously beneficial to the user experience.

  • It addresses the “I want it now” mentality of visitors. Many will use the search box without even checking the nav bar.
  • Visitors stay on the site longer, find what they seek, and are more likely to take action.
  • Bounce and exit rates decrease and time-on-site can increase.
  • Users may discover related content of interest.

Onsite search opens wallets.

E-commerce sites generally employ onsite search to improve the shopper’s experience. Added features such as filtering options and related content help shoppers dial-in on the products they want.

According to Beacon Technologies, up to 30 percent of users on e-commerce sites will use the search box and show intent to buy by searching for product names, codes and categories.

Benefits include:

  • Customers find products more easily and then make purchases.
  • Customers stay onsite longer, conduct more searches and are more likely to return.
  • Satisfied customers are more likely to give positive reviews and provide word-of-mouth.

Onsite search also delivers an analytics goldmine.

The analytical benefits derived from mining on-site search data should not be overlooked. The data available from onsite search activity can provide valuable insights into how your visitors think and behave.

In an edition of its Websight newsletter, the analytics experts from Stratigent provide a robust list of key performance indicators onsite search can provide:

  • Average number of searches per session
  • Percent of searches that do not return a result
  • Percent of search sessions that click on search results
  • Percent of sessions that exit from search results pages
  • Conversion ratio of visitors who use onsite search
  • Top search terms and corresponding conversion rates
  • Top keyword groupings
  • Top decomposed keywords
  • Top keywords that do not return search results
  • Top locations on the site where onsite search is accessed from
  • Number of searches per session / number of items added from search results
  • Session duration for all sessions that included searches
  • Average time spent on search results pages
  • Average time spent before searching
  • Average order value for customers who used the onsite search

Stratigent also explains evaluating these metrics will give you additional insight for evaluating visitor segments. Ultimately, the data will help you customize the search experience and optimize your content to better serve customers and increase conversion.

You have three choices for onsite search.

Install a script. Christopher Heng, at thesitewizard.com, claims the ideal way to employ onsite search is to install your own search engine script. Doing so requires having the facility to install and run PHP or Perl scripts on your web account.

However, you need not write the scripts because there are a variety of free PHP and Perl search engine scripts available. Installing your own search engine script can be advantageous because you can customize results pages. You can also re-index your site as needed or as often as you choose.

Choose a hosted search engine service. If you’d rather not tinker with a script, you can go with a free or hosted search engine service. Services such as these index your site and provide you HTML code to plug into your web pages.

Free search engine remote hosting services rid you from having to run Perl or PHP scripts on your web server. Be aware though, most free services place banner ads on results pages. Also, many services will not allow you to completely control the output to generate results that adapt to your site’s look and feel. Finally, these services are likely to impose a cap on the frequency with which your site is indexed, so results may not be up to date at all times.

Use a major search engine. You can also use major search engines, including Google, to add onsite search for free. Google custom search engine will be free to use, but you’ll have no control over the frequency your site will be indexed. Advertising will be displayed, but offers a potential revenue source via AdSense for search. (Ad-free service is available starting at $100 per year.)

Here’s an overview of the service.

How to optimize onsite search.

Your goal with onsite search is to create a better user experience. Achieving it may call for questioning out-of-the-box or default functionality. A little experimentation and testing could prove enormously helpful.

Test how results are displayed. You might want to change how your results are delivered.

Which is more practical for your site… Relevance to the search term? Customer ratings? Availability? Popularity? Changes you make to your onsite search may play a big part in improving conversion. Measuring visitor actions and results is key to optimizing the search experience.

Optimize the metadata displayed. You may have you seen star ratings that summarize customer reviews, or an in stock or out of stock badge on a site. These are examples of search metadata.

The metadata displayed can help (or hinder) buyer behavior. Shoppers may choose to base their decisions on it instead of sifting through extensive product information.

Test combinations of metadata to find out what converts best. Metadata elements worthy of testing include the number of visitor reviews to show, product availability and information about what others have purchased or viewed.

Experiment with filtering options. Onsite search results offer refinement options, which may allow users to narrow the search by criteria such as price, brand, topics and more.

You may want to try altering the default state of refinement options.

Minor changes could enhance the search functionality and impact conversion.

Test the number of results displayed. Do visitors respond better to more choices or less? Testing will reveal the answer. If you have multiple product departments or content categories, you may discover user preferences vary among them.

Examine layout options. Which works better, a grid or list? Do results differ between categories? Testing layouts may help you discover how to optimize the experience for visitors.

Test ancillary features. Many search algorithms have ancillary features that support showing the visitor suggestions based on what was entered. Ancillary features, such as responding to misspellings, can have a dramatic effect on results.

An expert weighs in on onsite search.

In 2013, Matthew Brown of PFSweb interviewed conversion optimization expert, Doug Mitchell, who shed some light on interesting realities of on-site search. Highlights from the interview include:

A high volume of onsite searches may indicate your site isn’t intuitive enough. Mitchell recommends if more than 20 percent of site traffic is using onsite search, you should look into it further.

However the use of onsite search doesn’t mean something’s wrong. Some site visitors simply prefer to shop or locate content via search. Attempting to decrease onsite search won’t necessarily optimize the conversion rate.

More search = higher conversion. Interesting. Averages indicate conversion rates are four to five times higher for people who use onsite search. Research reveals these visitors are often ready to purchase in the fastest way possible.

The order of results is important. Mitchell cautions you shouldn’t try to upsell site visitors with inaccurate results, but aim to provide the most accurate search results possible. If two products are similar, it’s wise to list the best-selling one first.

Online retailers and content marketers both stand to prosper from the opportunities onsite search offers. If you’ve neglected the practice until now, it could be time to put it to the test. Keep testing and examining your results to refine the user search experience, improve engagement, and get the register to ring more often.

responses to “Onsite Search: An Overlooked and Under-Utilized Marketing Tool”

  1. It’d be way cool if you had insights about what happened as a result of deploying search on your site.

    • Dragos Dragusin says:

      I agree, checking what happened after a search in details is important.
      In Google Analytics you can see if the visitor refined the search with another keyword.

      If anyone would like to see some examples on how to analyse on-site searches with Google Analytics here is an article: http://blog.lemonstand.com/4-ways-analyze-site-search-google-analytics/.

    • Yes it’s phenomenally interesting. We track on site search through to clicks and conversions. Search volume shows what people are looking for, clicks and CTR show interest level in results and search through to conversion shows if the engagement followed the click.

      Alerts help you spot issues, e.g. under-performing searches, missing content, spikes in interest, etc.

  2. On site search is a great tool. But you should also consider to have clear calls to actions and directed messages for your audience. depending on the page they land one make sure the promise that brought them takes through the process you want them to. Either by find the information they need or subscribing for it.

  3. Antony Kattukaran says:

    Hey Barry, great article. This is exactly what I advocate to many ecommerce CEO. Many dont have data today to understand the value of great onsite search. Most focus all efforts on digital marketing and think the job is done. I equate an intelligent search bar like a sales person in a store. Ask him/her anything, and it should show relevant choices with options to narrow down choice.
    Disclaimer: I am the CEO of Tagalys, an intelligent semantic search engine. We launched a month back and already signed up 2 retailers after showing them a personalized demo. Happy to share our capabilities, if your time allows.