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Web site search just needs smarter users

If you manage the search facility for your Web site, no one has to tell you how many complaints you get from frustrated searchers who can’t find what they are looking for. You’re frustrated too as you struggle to improve things, but don’t turn on your own customers.This month’s Biznology newsletter asks you whether you believe that “Web Site Search Just Needs Smarter Users.”

I remember sitting behind the two-way mirror. As we craned our necks to watch, our usability test subjects struggled to complete the tasks on our redesigned Web site. Each of us, the test observers, discussed ways to fix the design, until Charles came up with the real solution: “We need smarter users.”

If you have the option of hiring smarter customers for your business, by all means do so, but the rest of us must deal with people as they are. If you run a Web site search facility, that can be difficult, because searchers are typically demanding, impatient folks. They expect your site to help them find what they are looking for and to do it as easily as possible. How can your site search please your customers?

Understanding Searcher Behavior

While you can think of searchers as being difficult to please, the truth is that the task of searching is just plain hard. It’s hard for searchers to find what they want and hard for site search facilities to find it for them. A number of factors conspire to create this situation:

  • Searchers dislike typing. Nobody wants to do any more work than necessary, and searchers are no different. The experts report that the average number of words searchers use in search queries has been increasing, but query lengths are still short—just 2.2 words. With so few words in each query, it is hard for site search engines to find the right answers.
  • Searchers struggle to find the right words. For many years, we’ve known thatchoosing the right words to use in a search query is the single hardest thing for searchers to do. Searchers who know very little about a subject tend not to know the vocabulary of that subject. Search is one of the few activities in computing where the user must think up the beginning of the interaction, rather than being presented with a menu of choices, so it stands to reason that this can often be challenging.
  • Searchers try once, maybe twice. A study by usability guru Jared Spool showed that only 34% of searchers found what they are looking for. More revealing is that 47% of those that failed tried only one search query, and 30% more tried just two. So if your Web site search doesn’t work the first time, you won’t get many more chances before users abandon your site for someone else’s.
  • Searchers won’t tell you what’s wrong. It would probably be more accurate to say that searchers can’t tell you what’s wrong. For example, when searchers report that their queries return “too many results,” what they mean is that what they were looking for was not shown at the top of the results list. Searchers know when the search failed, but rarely know what went wrong for you to work on.

With such a list of difficulties, it’s no wonder that most Web site search facilities are disappointing.

What Can Web Sites Do?

Your Web site has competitors—competitors that can steal your customers if they provide a better and easier way to find things than you do. How can you design your Web site to help your busy customers instead of turning them off?

  • Reduce the need to search. People who follow a Web site’s navigation are more likely to find what they are looking for, so focus on clear links to the places people need to find the most. Remember, it doesn’t matter how your visitors find what they are looking for, so work on navigation as well as your site search.
  • Optimize your most popular queries. Find out what searchers look for the most—those are the very short one- and two-word queries that are hardest for search engines to properly respond to. Then use a step-by-step approach to optimize the most popular queries so your search engine provides the best answers. You can’t work this hard at every query, but the most popular ones are worth this kind of effort.
  • Provide choices instead of an empty box. Where possible, use multifaceted searchtechnology to offer navigational choices instead of demanding that searchers think up search queries every time. Multifaceted search can provide choices that visitors can use instead of searching, so that it seems like navigation to them, but it can also provide choices on search results screens, so that those who search only once may click on the search results instead of merely abandoning.

The visitors to your Web site are busy people, and they won’t work as hard as you might like to find what you have for them. If you take the steps outlined here, you’ll at least meet them halfway.


Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website,, most recently as the Manager of Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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