By Mark Brixton

With MarketingSherpa statistics revealing that 43 percent of visitors landing on a website go immediately to the search function, it’s worth investigating the many small changes and quick fixes that are available to ensure site search is an effective tool that will help any e-commerce site thrive.

1. Position is Paramount
Site search should be easily located and positioned on every page, in the same spot and above the fold. Ideally it appears at both the top and the bottom of every page of a website, and is large enough to contain the most common search phrases used by visitors. Don’t position a site search box next to other boxes as it only serves to create confusion.

Fashion retailer Supré places its site search function in the centre and at the top of each page, with its email sign-up box located at the bottom. Both are clearly labeled, indicating each purpose, leaving no room for confusion.

2. Convenience is Key

Employ text prompts such as ‘enter search here’, and code the page to include the cursor in the search box, both highlighting what it’s there for and bringing site visitors directly to it. Consider applying an auto-complete feature to ensure people hit upon exactly what they’re looking for.

Results obtained from auto-complete are also more likely to return more relevant results as spelling errors are reduced. This is demonstrated by premium denim store, 7 For All Mankind, which mastered the correct use of auto-complete within its search function. With so many variations of jeans and denim types available, the auto-complete helps a user locate exactly the style and cut they’re shopping for in a matter of seconds.

3. Be Specific, Be Clear
According to Avail Intelligence’s ‘Searchandising and Recommendation’ report, relevant results can increase online revenue by as much as 30 percent. Without accurate titles and descriptive content, visitors may click on results that are unrelated – and if they can’t find what they’re after, people are more likely to stop searching and leave a site altogether.

4. Search All Site Content
Many sites limit searches to core content – an online retailer may restrict site search to only the products being sold.  Yet there are often numerous types of content on a website including information pages, articles, comments, blogs, videos, forums and social media, all of which should be accessible via search. The more important content can still be emphasised in search results – again such as the products being sold via a digital shop front – and there are many ways different content can be viewed, such as via the addition of tabs within search results.

5. Refine and Rank
The ability to refine results allows people to locate exactly what they want. Search refinement options include brand, model, colour, price, most popular, Facebook likes, ratings and so on. Allow search users to rank results based on common variances such as price, date, brand and rating. Online surf retailer, SurfStitch, offers a myriad of refinement options, allowing consumers to be very specific when searching.

6. Consider a Floating Search Box
One of the coolest ways to increase conversions using the site search box is to have it visible everywhere on your site by floating it in the header on every page. Retailer of wedding favours American Bridal uses this feature to great effect, giving the user universal easy access to the search box at the top of the page no matter where they are on the site.

7. Store Recent Searches for Return Visitors
The ability to easily reperform a recent search greatly helps repeat site visitors, and can be stored in a cookie to be shown anywhere on the site. It’s a simple way of supplying personalisation too. If this feature is offered, add basic controls so users can delete recent searches.

8. Optimise Ratings and Reviews
A Forrester Research study commissioned in late 2010 discovered that 93 percent of UK shoppers had seen recommendations on retailer sites, with 42 percent having purchased based on personalised product recommendations..

This is a prime opportunity to boost sales conversions using peer reviews, so don’t waste it. Ensure there is a strong call to action (‘Buy’ or ‘Add to Cart’) button situated around your star ratings on the product pages and category pages, to capture customers’ positive reactions to user-generated reviews.

Pureplayer employs both ratings and a ‘buy’ option within its search results. Ratings are based on a five-star system, which sits underneath the product image, with the obvious ‘buy’ function, highlighted in green, positioned just below that.

9. Don’t Display Irrelevant Information
Keep search results free of information that is not directly related to a visitor’s keyword search such page size, date created and relevance indicators. However, keep in mind that for some content, such as news articles, the date created is applicable and therefore acceptable to exhibit.

Appliances Online sets a good example when it comes to supplying the right information in search results. The product title and images are clear, as is the all-important pricing information. Other facts a shopper may need to know when buying particular appliances, such as energy efficiency, water usage and specific features, are also present.

10. Test, Analyse, Repeat…

ABT (“Always be testing”) is the mantra of successful e-commerce professionals. Study your analytics to understand what terms users use to search for your products, and which key words provide the best click through. Conduct regular A/B tests and multi-variate tests to continuously improve conversions by optimising every element of your site – and never stop doing this. In online retail, a five percent conversion rate is considered a pretty good effort, but in reality that is still a 95 percent failure rate – you can always improve your user experience through analytics and testing. If you don’t. your competitors will.

Mark Brixton is the country manager of SLI Systems. For more information click here.