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The importance of site search

Recently, two people I really respect disagreed on the significance of Google adding site search boxes to their search results pages. One thought that showing ads for competitors when someone is doing a site search was the ultimate bait-and-switch scheme, while the other said it’s no big deal. Who’s right? I don’t think it matters as much as a bigger problem—why site search is an opportunity for Google in the first place.

Over two years ago, I wrote about Google’s threat to your Web site’s search, but at the time I was talking about Google’s toolbar. If you don’t feel like reading that old article, the basic idea is that most Web sites have such horrible search facilities that many searchers use Google’s toolbar to execute a site search instead of using the site’s built-in search. Some marketers might ask, “Who cares?” The truth is that you should care, because there are so many ways that Google can lead people away from your Web site on that results screen, the main one being that ads to your competitors might appear there.

Fast forward to 2008 and let’s pick up last month’s controversy. Google, as shown below, has begun placing site search boxes on the results screen. And just as with the toolbar, people who have already decided they want your site will see paid search ads for competitors on that site search results page.

Google's new site search box on the results screen

Alan Rimm-Kaufman pointed out that showing these competitive ads was clearly not what the searcher was looking for and Google should just cut it out. Andy Beal thinks critics are overreacting, especially because Google seems to be allowing companies to opt out the site search box.

Now, you should know that I have shared the stage with Alan at a number of venues and I highly respect him—I’ll be joining him again at the Darden Online Update at the end of this month. You should also know that I have that same respect for Andy Beal—I even gave him a blurb for his excellent new book, Radically Transparent. So who’s right?

I think they are both right. Alan has a point that Google is showing seemingly irrelevant results and Andy is right that anyone who leaves your site because they saw an ad is not your most loyal customer anyway. But I think there’s a larger point here.

Site search is generally awful.

Jared Spool once found that site searchers find what they are looking for just 34% of the time. And that was the average—you’d expect half of all sites to be worse. Some site search facilities are nothing more than random Web page generators.

If we had decent search results for our Web sites, there’d be no reason for Google to have a site search button on the toolbar. Google would have no incentive to waste precious screen real estate on a site search box on the results screen, either. It’s a much more natural action to search in Google, click on the best result to go to the site, and then figure out where to go next, which might include a site search.

But we’ve systematically taught customers over the years that they can’t trust our Web site’s native search facility. They might get lousy results (or none at all) and it wastes their time more than it saves time. If we all decided to fix our site search results, Google’s attempt to inject itself between us and our own Web site’s visitors wouldn’t work. It’s only our inadequate site search experience that makes this an issue for search experts to discuss at all.

So what are you doing about your site search? We often focus on the technology itself (“Which search engine do you use?”) but successful sites also take two other simultaneous approaches:

  • Top-down. Determine the most popular queries for your Web site’s search and ensure that they provide correct results, as explained in “Improving Your Web Site’s Top Searches.”
  • Bottom-up. Optimize every page on your site, so that you provide good results for even the most unique queries. You can borrow a page from search marketing to improve your site search, by making sure every page is indexed, and that every page has its content optimized.

If you expect site search technology to work by itself, you’re certainly disappointing your customers and driving them to use Google to search your site. If you treat incremental improvement in site search with the same importance you give to experimental marketing for everything else on your site, you’ll be doing everything you can to drive searchers to your site search facility instead of Google. After all, don’t you use eBay’s search? And Amazon’s? Teach your customers to use yours, too.

Mike Moran

Mike Moran is a 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 served 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 was a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research and is now a Senior Fellow of The Conference Board. A Certified Speaking Professional, Mike regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide

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