More often than not, in-site search engines are just another way to bog down your customer with technology that ultimately interferes with shopping instead of helping it, no matter how good your intentions were. And not just in my humble opinion. Research proves it. So here it is in a nutshell: Don't do it. Instead, let the design of your website be your most effective searching tool. And if you absolutely must include a searching function, then do it right.

Here's why in-site search engines typically don't work:

First, they don't work. Redundant? Not really. Despite what you may think, the odds actually are very low that your shopper's search is going to give them what they're looking for. And if it doesn't, they're gone. As Larry Constantine, Director of Research & Development at Constantine & Lockwood, Ltd., says,

"Indeed, the research on searching is both clear and consistent. If a visitor uses a site-based search engine, their chances of finding what they are seeking, even given that it is on the site, are drastically reduced. Jared Spool has found that using the search box can cut a visitor's chance of success in half. In other words, if, instead of searching, visitors stay with browsing and follow links, they are twice as likely to find what they seek. The implications of this for the design of e-business sites are enormous."

What you call it isn't what they call it. The other day, I was trying to find this neat kid-friend of mine one of those clicker thingies baseball umps use to keep track of balls, strikes and outs. Being Martian, I didn't know what it was called, but on dozens of sites I tried "clicker," "counter," "score keeper," and a variety of other possibilities. Every search engine attempt was fruitless. I wound up finding one only because one site included a listing of their categories. Under "umpire gear" they had "indicators!" If refining a search takes repeated attempts to get the right word, how persistent do you think most customers are going to be before they click away to one of your competitors?

Their software doesn't think like your software. To use any search function properly, you have to think like the programming behind it and come up with an effective search query. Get the wrong parameters and you get no results. Make your search too narrow and you don't find what you're looking for; too broad, and you're overwhelmed with more results than you can shake a stick at. Either way, from the customer's point of view, the easiest thing to do is say sayonara!

You need an Advanced Search Option? When the simple search produces nothing, maybe it's time to make the customer perform another click and load up yet another page. Ha! (You knew I was kidding, right?) What that amounts to is an illogical form of punishment. Remember, anytime you involve your visitor in the “system,” that visitor is not shopping! And for the average shopper advanced search options are hard to understand - and they generate bad results, too. What you get is a shopper who is confused and frustrated and maybe even feeling stupid that they somehow don't know what they're doing - definitely not the right feeling for a satisfying customer experience.

Most of your visitors don't arrive at your site thinking, "Boy, I really hope there's a search box on the home page for me!" In fact, most of your visitors only turn to a searching feature when all else fails them. And when that fails them, too, you've lost them.

Think about how you use a store. When you first enter, do you make a bee-line for the information booth or seek out the first available sales person? I'd bet you don't. Even if you have a good idea what you want, you walk in, look around, get a feel for the place, right? You begin to move in a direction, looking for cues, reading signs … in short, you are shopping, in the broadest sense.

The customer-centered e-tailer knows this and also knows the best available searching mechanism ever invented is the human eye-brain combination known as "visual scanning." Everybody does it (whether or not they are aware of it), and it is always the first line of attack. Bolded or highlighted text, vertically-aligned lists, A-Z site indexes, site-maps, a logical progression of links and pages - if these are intelligently and thoughtfully employed, they easily can handle almost every customer's searching needs.

Still not sold? Dying to include an in-site search engine? Then do it right:

· Structure the searching function to your information. Don't use generic applications. It is worth the time and trouble to tailor-make your engine.

· Understand human psychology to the extent you can anticipate the nature of their queries and include every possibility in your engine.

· Allow users to qualify or constrain their searches with additional check boxes or drop-downs (default the most likely selection).

· Incorporate the use of synonyms and equivalents, and for very large sites, it helps to "establish an internal glossary of terms and a thesaurus that maps equivalents."

Don't include in-site search (or any other feature) just because it's possible. Include it only if it is the best possible answer to what your customer needs. And always remember, most of your shoppers aren't programmers.

© 2000 Future Now, LLC

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