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Is your site search a guess machine?

A bear ready to attack.

Old Time Search

Just past Fish Creek Campground, a gravel, two-track wanders off into the wilderness of Glacier National Park. At the head of the road there are several warning signs about the perils of backcountry travel. Bears. Mountain Lions. Falling trees. There are also unlisted perils — flat tires, dehydration, fire, and the various demons that live in our imagination when we venture into wild places. There’s a lot of unknown down that track but that’s where we’re going, so we drove on.

Unlike many backcountry trails, the trail leading up to Howe Lake looks maintained. The low growth has been hacked back a bit. A pouncing mountain lion won’t instantly materialize from the undergrowth rubbing at your shoulders but instead spring from the undergrowth two feet distant. It’s a small solace, but when you’re the prey you’ll take what you can get.

Nothing springs from the undergrowth during our two mile hike. Our bear spray remains holstered. Once you’ve gotten the rhythm of the trail, your mind wanders from the dangers to the wonders. There are birds that are common but also some that are new. Squirrels and chipmunks squeak in the underbrush. They’re familiar though of a slightly different variety than those at home. Other than “black squirrel”, we can’t name them. I can’t recall the varieties of conifers we pass but the name of the common deciduous tree, the Aspen, comes to mind.

As humans, we’re curious about gaps in our knowledge. The real blessing of the past decade has been how ubiquitous computing and connectivity have become. If you don’t know something, you can immediately gain access to knowledge about a subject. Unless you’re far off the grid. We were far off the grid. So, we did what we used to do before answers were readily available. We pondered. We stared off into space hoping to manifest long forgotten tidbits. We guessed or, like Calvin’s Dad, we made stuff up. It was a fun game with no downside.

The Cost of the Wilds

It’s not often that your customers are going to find themselves in the wilds of your website. If you’ve done your information architecture correctly, they’re often going to find what they need. If a customer is responding to a marketing campaign they’re going to hit the right landing page that you’ve tuned for response. But what if either of those things go wrong?

If they’re like most humans (and up to 50% of your website visitors), they’re going to put words in that box in the upper right of your website. They’re going to search. If site search doesn’t work you’re going to lose the sale or get another call to you support center.

Most companies don’t pay a lot of attention to site search. You probably don’t either. You bought a package a few years ago, got it up and running and haven’t paid much attention since. Heck, the IT guys have got it, right? Well, no, they don’t. You may be lucky and have a project manager who is particularly fussy about search results but you’ve probably expended most of your luck on your last marketing campaign.

I bet most of your search results are awful. Even for top industry terms. Here’s a quick study we did of top Life Insurance companies. And those are the top industry search terms. Imagine what it’s like for less utilized terms.

You should try this on your website. Do you like the results? Try the next tier of terms — product names, product categories, focus industries — more poor results. How do I know? Because I do this on a regular basis for our clients and see the results. The results stink. Search success rates — the percentage of searchers who find what they’re looking for — in the low double digits are not uncommon.

So when left in the wilds of your website what are your customers and prospects going to do? Well, if you’re lucky (there’s that word again) they’re going to guess about what links may provide the right information and try to stumble to the correct answer. Probably not, though. They’re going to go to Google. You don’t want that. Google is where your competitors live. Keep them on your site.

Guess Protection (Your Bear Spray)

Better site search takes the guessing out of the search experience. How do you get better site search? Like anything worthwhile there’s no magic, only hard work. But the work is worth doing. For prospects who are lost, there is revenue locked in your site search. For customers in need of answers, there are reduced support costs locked in your site search. This value is many times the cost of fixing site search. Here’s a few ways to get started.

  1. Marketing should be the business owner of search: Sometimes, search is owned by the wrong department. I often find that the IT department owns site search. Site search is no more “IT” than SEO or Pay Per Click. You wouldn’t have IT owning those functions. If you want to drive better business results from site search, the business needs to own it.
  2. Measure search: You can’t fix what you don’t measure. Most measurement systems have basic search metrics. That’s a start. Look at your top terms. Fix those first. But like many areas you want to optimize (like SEO, for example) you’re going to need to measurement system that allows you to optimize site search results.
  3. Know the value: Connect your marketing measurement system, the one with conversion data, to your search measurement system so that you can measure the value of better search. As you improve your search results, site search success will improve and so will conversions. You know the value of those conversions. Crunch the numbers.

Guessing is bad for your customers. Guessing is bad for you. Monitor your site search. Fix your site search. It doesn’t have to a guessing game.

To learn more, see what our experts say are the Four Things to Improve Your Site Search. 

Author

  • Steve Zakur

    Stephen Zakur is CEO of SoloSegment. SoloSegment provides analytics that improve site search conversion and machine learning technologies that improve content effectiveness.