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Two Things You Can Do Now to Improve Your Site Search

Search is one of the most critical customer experiences on your website. Search is also the customer experience that likely gets little attention in your management system and at budget time. Sometimes this is because site search improvement seems like a dark art.  It’s not uncommon that we see people measuring site search wrong. However, if you’re just getting started with search improvement (and many of you are, you just may not know it) there are two things you can do now to make your customer experience better. 

Lessons from Folkston, GA

I’m just back from a week in southern Georgia (the state, not the country) fishing with a few buddies. For the past few years, I’ve had a side hustle writing for fly fishing magazines about fly fishing in places where fly anglers don’t normally lurk — most fly anglers go after trout — and fish for species that are not normally pursued. This past week we fished the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and pursued Bowfin (called Mudfish locally) and we caught a bunch. The weather was perfect.

It was a great week. While on vacation it always takes a while to shut off my work brain so I do have two lessons from the road.

Go Deeper

When the VRBO listing says “Only a short walk to the train viewing platform” we mused about the hobby that is Trainspotting. Apparently, trainspotters come to Folkston and stay at the charming little house we were renting. We should have looked into this further. We didn’t.

When we arrived in town, we crossed the two tracks that run the length of downtown Folkston.  Our house was about a hundred yards from the tracks. Taped to the refrigerator was a sample list of the trains that come through Folkston daily. The list contained 40+ trains. We then Googled “Folkston Trains” and learned that Folkston is not just a train viewing locale. It is one of the best train viewing locales in the US. Almost all the trains that go in and out of Florida must go through Folkston. They even refer to this area as the Folkston Funnel.

We didn’t count the trains. There were a lot of them. Running 24 hours a day. It seems like a particularly busy time of day is between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. and then again in the evening. And then again in the early morning. Really, all day long, trains, trains, trains.

If we had gone deeper upon discovering that there was a train viewing platform we might have chosen a different location for our lodgings and would have slept better. We didn’t.

Fun Fact: At every railroad crossing a train must blow its horn. The pattern is: two longs blasts — one short blast — one long blast.

Fun Fact: Regulations say that a train horn must be 110 decibels. That’s rock concert loud.

Fun Fact: At 160 decibels your eardrums burst. The threshold for being driven insane by train horns is much lower.

Be where your customers are

This is a town that has little industry outside logging and only a handful of trainspotters making up the tourist base so there aren’t a lot of dining choices for tourists. When you look on Yelp, you find a handful of fast food restaurants mentioned and a few local eateries. We worked our way through these and found that Jalen’s BBQ, a dodgy looking place, served excellent barbecue and were mystified why the top rated restaurant in town was, in fact, the top rated restaurant in town. It wasn’t very good.

Tuesday evening when we stopped by the grocery store to replenish our supplies, we noticed the Brickhouse Restaurant a few doors down. It wasn’t on Yelp (it is now, I added it). It’s a breakfast/lunch place so we stopped there the next morning. This restaurant turns out to be the best one in town. Great staff. Excellent cooking.

While the Brickhouse is well known to locals, you would pass it by in this electronic age when increasingly travelers are using apps to find dining options in unfamiliar places. Is your business listed where your customers are looking? If not, get going. For us, that’s paying attention to site search when your visitors make use of it. You need to be where your customers are.

I’m back

This morning I dig out of a stuffed inbox. The good news is that I slept most of the day yesterday recovering from the sleep deficit I gathered in Folkston. I’m energized to see what the week brings and marvel at the quiet.

Tiled Search is the Shiny New Thing! Is it a fad – or here to stay?

If you close your eyes and imagine what a search engine results page looks like you probably see something that looks a lot like Google’s search results. You see a list of titles and text snippets that potentially describe the thing that you’re looking for. That’s what Google and Amazon and practically every other site has trained us to see. What few people see is a grid of tiles. This is probably a good thing as there are few use cases that tiled search results are effective.

Where do tiled search results work?

We don’t see search engine results presented as tiles often but we do see them from time to time. When you see them on a commerce site, tiled results can be quite effective. These results usually include a picture of the thing, a title, pricing, a call to action (usually a cart action), and perhaps a snapshot review or description. The picture is the key to knowing if you’ve found the right thing in a commerce setting and a tile is an effective way to deliver this content. But we also see this on sites that are definitely not B2C related.

So what’s the downside?

A large investment bank has made search it’s primary navigation method. When you load their homepage, smack dab in the middle of the page is a search box. They have a hamburger if you want to try navigation but the user experience clearly has doubled down on the effectiveness of search. It’s a bold move. It says “Our search is that good. Go ahead, we dare you to try and not find what you’re looking for.” So how do they do?

First let’s review the two things that all search results pages have to do really well:

      1. Present high quality search results that answer my question.
      2. Give me some indication of which of the results I should pick as the right answer.

Traditionally, those goals have been achieved in list form. Each entry in the list contains an informative title and a snippet that gives me more information about the content found on each result’s landing page.  So why are search results always presented this way? Well there are a couple of reasons.

      1. It’s what we’ve been trained to expect after two decades of seeing search results. We don’t have to figure out how to use the search results, it’s our cognitive model.
      2. It is an excellent user experience for communicating this information. The title & snippet model contains most of the information you need to evaluate the response.
      3. See 1 above. It’s what we do.

Are tiled results good or bad?

I don’t know. In theory, tiles should be fine if, and that’s a big IF, your search results are awesome and the top three results are the right answer to every question associated with the keyword. The tile also has to tell me which of the three results I see above the fold are the right one. I haven’t seen the data to know whether the tiles are better or not and I suspect many of the tile adopters don’t really know that as well.

The investment bank example above, in my opinion, scores poorly on all accounts. First, I didn’t find many of the results above the fold to have a title that was descriptive enough for me to understand it. Second, there is rarely any additional information presented to help me gain additional insight and what little additional insight there is is behind another click. I might as well click on the result instead of wasting time on the “additional info” click . Third, I know this industry and the titles seem to be more marketing speak than information about the content. It feels like the exact opposite of what a search result should do.

My gut tells me, outside of commerce use cases, tiles search results are less effective than lists because I haven’t seen anyone crack the code on providing enough information on a tile to allow me to know which one I should click on.

So why change?

The list of search engine results is a highly effective method that has few challengers. So why do companies experiment with a change? There are a few good reasons. Most notably, some of our tribe are creative animals and they’re constantly seeking something more innovative, something better. Of course, a new design can’t just be an artistic design exercise, it has to be a usability exercise. Does this change make the experience better and deliver better results for the business?

There is no doubt that the emergence of mobile has changed the way we consume content and voice search will change it even more dramatically. When you think about voice search you can’t scroll through a list of things so perhaps getting our house in order where we can deliver results in terse, well constructed bit makes sense for both tiles and, eventually, voice results. But I think that’s a bit of a stretch. I think most companies do it because they think it looks cool.

I still want tiles.

Fine. But make sure it’s not just something you want, make sure it’s effective for your customers and prospects. If you’re going to give tiled results a try, I’d recommend the following:

    • Make sure you work the design hard. Think about how tiled results fit into the rest of the site’s design and deliver the right information to make the search effective.
      • Test the heck out of the tiled design. A/B test tiled against list. A/B test descriptive tiles against lean tiles.
    • Measure success and whether search success for each of these design changes increases or decreases goal achievement.

The goal of search is to connect, as quickly as possible, your customers and prospects with the answers to their questions. Don’t lose site of that and you’ll be fine.

Want more site search guidance? Try a free consultation with us.

The Ins and Outs of Instant Search – What is it and do you need it for your site?

Autocomplete is the bane of any message sent from a mobile device. However, one place where autocomplete shines is on search engines. Autocomplete, also called autosuggest or incremental search, improves the user experience by making it easier to execute searches by suggesting words and phrases that a matching algorithm determines are appropriate based upon the characters entered into a search box. Google has had autocomplete in their search box since 2008. Following in their footsteps, any company that values its customer experience has implemented autosuggestion in their site search. But there’s a new trend in the type-ahead game that we’ve begun to see cropping up on more and more company websites: Instant Search.

Webinar: Five Effective Strategies for A/B Testing Site Search

A/B Testing Site Search

A few weeks ago I participated in a webinar over on Biznology. I shared five strategies for improving site search using A/B testing. Long a part of the digital marketer’s toolkit, A/B testing has relevance for search analysts as well. Using these methods you can test new settings against a portion of your live traffic without risking tanking things altogether. Once the new settings have proven themselves, you can deploy them to the primary search engine.

Most companies don’t measure site search well. They rely upon out of the box measurements that measure activity instead of outcomes. Nowhere is this problem acuter than when you move from one search engine to another.

  • How do you exceed customer expectations if you don’t have an effective baseline?
  • How do you know you’ve done the migration well if you don’t measure the gap before and after?
  • How do you ensure improvements in content and algorithms are effective?

A/B testing of the search engines is the answer. Check out the webinar. You can also read a short version I did in a blog post a few weeks ago.


A full transcript of the conversation is below:

Fear and Loathing in Search IT

Don’t let bad onsite search catch you by surprise – fix it now.

The biggest challenge in corporate IT is managing the never-ending list of equally important priorities. This requires what I’ve always referred to as “ruthless prioritization”; yes there are a lot of important things to do but you can only work on the most critical. More often than not, important stuff like site search gets left behind.

So what do you do when that important stuff all of a sudden becomes critical? You sweat and you work the problem. It’s easier if you have the right data.

Five Tips to A/B Test Your Search Improvement Efforts

If you’re working to improve your site search it’s sometimes difficult to know what’s working and what’s not. You do a bunch of stuff — modify settings, change the user experience — and measure the outcome. If search success is better, then you pat yourself on the back. Your search improvement efforts worked! But did they? Search is really dynamic. If nothing else changes, you know that the content changes constantly. So was it a content change that improved your search success or something you did to the engine? Fortunately, you can take a lesson from marketing to assess the effect of changes. You can A/B test your search engine.

Your Competitors’ Ads On Your Site Search: Site Search Fails, Vol. 1

Effective site search is important to your business success. Searchers think you have what they want, but they can’t find it. If they find it, they’ll buy.

Here are some facts:

  • Studies show 30-50% of your B2B website visitors use your site search function.
    You can find this number in your web analytics reports. Even if your number is much lower (one company we work with had only 1% of their visitors search), how many leads are you comfortable ignoring? Ask your sales leader if you don’t know the answer to this one.
  • Those who use the site search function are 6 times more likely to buy from you.
    These are some of your best prospects. They’re ready to buy. Meet them halfway, show them what you’ve got.
  • 85% of B2B marketers ignore their site search functionality.
    That’s what this blog series is about, businesses that are ignoring site search at their peril. One of our clients, a Fortune 100 tech company, improved their site search success rate by 109% and found $9M of revenue in their neglected site search. These results got their attention.

It’s that last point that makes this series so easy to write. Companies are ignoring a lot of very low hanging fruit and it is costing them in revenue, support costs, and market opportunity.

In this series, we’ll show you some egregious examples of site search neglect. We’re not doing this to poke fun at the worst cases, we’re doing this to prompt you to go look at your own site search to see where you might have some exposure.

So without further ado, let’s get to the fail.

Is your site search a guess machine?

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.

Four Things to Improve Your Site Search

You know your site search isn’t good. You’re in good company. A recent survey we did of leading healthcare companies showed that 47% of the industry’s top keywords performed poorly on site search. That’s consistent across industries, more so in B2B enterprises. Why is it so bad? Well, some of that is because search owners don’t know what to fix. The good news is that getting started is easy and there are four things you can work on today that will improve your site search success rates.