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If your customers are disappointed in your Web site’s search facility, it’s not only because search didn’t work—it’s because most of them already failed at navigating. To learn more about where your customers are coming from, read on.


Maybe you’re convinced by now that most people find searching a bit harder task than other things they do with their computers—so it shouldn’t be a shock to find out that most people try navigating your Web site before searching it. When they land on a Web page, their eyes scan looking for the words they have in mind for the task at hand. When looking for a product to buy, they scan for product names—generic names or brand names. If they see one, that’s where they click. If not, they search. (Human behavior is not this simple, of course, but this is generally the way your site’s visitors behave.)
Why do people tend to navigate first? One reason is that navigation simply works better. We’ve already seen how site search succeeds just 34 percent of the time. In contrast, navigating using links succeeds 54 percent of the time. People will do more of what works.
But navigation is also easier for users than search. Thinking up the right words to type into the search box is not as easy as clicking a link, so expect people to do more of what’s easier. As stark proof, one study used a site where the site search engine provided batter results than navigating did. People tried navigating and failed, then searched and succeeded, but then returned to navigating first for their next task in the study. So even when search does work better, people tend to navigate first.
OK, OK, so people navigate first. So what? Why would that cause more disappointment in search?

  • Searchers are frustrated from the start. If your visitor has already scanned a page—maybe even tried a few links—and has not found anything, some frustration may have already begun to set in. People want what they want now—their patience ebbs a little more each year. Understand that the average person trying a search may already be a bit more negative than when they arrived at your site a minute earlier.
  • Searchers are looking for harder-to-find information. Your Web site is designed around the information people need the most. Most of your information fits into certain themes, such as the product lines you sell. You tend to have a lot of pages with that product information, and it’s relatively easy for your search facility to find. But people usually don’t need to resort to search for that information—it’s already well-linked in your navigation. No, people use search for the stuff that is harder to find. So search has a tougher job than navigation.
  • The information needed may not exist. A special case of harder-to-find information is impossible-to-find information—your site simply may not have the answer to this searcher’s question. Because search allows an open-ended interaction where folks can type in anything, it foments frustration because nothing can deliver on that big an implied promise: “Type in anything and we’ll find it.”
  • Search is blamed for other failings. If your search facility is universally reviled, it may have become a scapegoat for larger problems on the site, such as poor navigation or missing content. People tend to demonize the last thing they used before they give up, so search gets more blame than it deserves.

If your Web site search isn’t all you want it to be, you can try a simple, free search engine to see if it works any better for you. Just remember that Web site searchers are tough to please—and it isn’t all the fault of your search facility.

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Mike Moran

About Mike Moran

Mike Moran has a unique blend of marketing and technology skills that he applies to raise return on investment for large marketing programs. Mike is a former IBM Distinguished Engineer and a senior strategist at Converseon, a leading social consultancy. Mike is the author of two books on digital marketing, an instructor at several leading universities, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research.

2 replies to this post
  1. Interesting analysis and something I have definitely experienced myself. But I would assert that there is one under utilized solution to this problem that any site could and probably should employ. That is to simply provide a way for the user to talk to someone who can provide the answer. Yes I know this is the most expensive of options and a web site is generally designed to reduce (but should not eliminate) these costs. It all goes back to the value of a satisfied customer. If less than 5% of your customers end up using the phone then its well worth the added cost. Not providing this option guarantees a frustrated and potentially lost customer.

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