Helping website users find what they’re looking for is a big part of making our websites usable for our target audience and productive marketing tools for our companies. Search methods can vary and, depending on your site content and the makeup of your audience, the underlying technology can be a challenge to pull off well.

Beyond the technology, there are considerations about how search functionality serves your marketing goals. At first glance, free-form search would seem to be the obvious answer for most of us. Let people type whatever they want into the search box and, voila, up pop the perfect results.

There are two potential problems with this approach.

Your site’s visitors aren’t always going to know the correct terminology to use when searching. More to the point, you’re not always going to know what terminology your audience favors. Without that knowledge, you can tag content appropriately, and your search function won’t provide consistent results. (As a side note, Google Analytics includes the ability to track search queries on your site. Implement it. It will help you learn more about your audience’s search habits.)

Barren Results
Few of us are running or working for Amazon-size businesses. Yet, Amazon and other major corporations influence our audience’s expectations. So providing free form search allows people get granular beyond the point of usefulness on a small data set. In other words, the more specific they get with their search, the more likely you are to look bad when the dreaded, “No results found” message is returned.

Which is why for many content marketers, a filtering feature is a better option than straightforward search. Filtering is, essentially, a directed search, or a predefined search. So, on a clothing site for example, instead of asking a user to know enough to enter “size 8” into the search box – or should that be “size eight?” – you offer a Filter by Size button that includes a pulldown listing all possible sizes.

Your web developer will thank you, because this much more clearly defines the search parameters she needs to code for.

Your webmaster will thank you because, done right, this simplifies the entry of new content to the site.

Your site visitors will thank you because they will get consistent, useful results.

Best of all, your CEO will thank you, because your website stands a much greater chance of providing a positive return on investment.

For all but the simplest of sites, search and filtering are central to your marketing effectiveness. (Great content’s only great if your audience can find it.) So it’s worthwhile to invest time to implement search functionality thoughtfully. A/B tests and analytics interpretation will lead you to the solution – or solutions – that works best for your clients, your content, and your bottom line.