If there’s one thing you have to admit when optimizing the internal site search, (the search results page within your web site) it’s this: You are NOT in control.

The search technology you are using can come bundled with your Content Management System (CMS), it may be custom technology you’re licensing, or it may be a custom tool the company built – changing that engine may not be a trivial thing, and can come associated with significant costs and resources. Even if your internal search application is rock solid, users may be typing in things that are not part of your offerings – the problem may be with how your site labels categories and products in general, rather than the results page itself.

The first thing you need to do, given the lack of control, is find the low-hanging fruit. You can fix the bigger things if you can justify a budget for the desired fixes, but those things can take time. Fix what you can first.

Baseline: Track Internal Search Usage

This really isn’t an improvement yet, but it’s going to be the bedrock of your fixes. If you can’t track your internal site search, you will not know what’s successful and what’s broken. Tracking internal site search has implications not just for your search page, but for the entire web site, and you can use the data to prioritize projects:

  • Groups of searches determine what’s broken
  • Pages that lead to a lot of searches may require usability tweaks
  • Site searches tell you what people need most

If you don’t know how to track it and you’re using Google Analytics on your web site, it can be as simple as identifying a letter or a string of letters at the URL, and informing your tracking tool what that is. If you searched for “windows 7” on the Microsoft site, for instance, you’ll get this on the URL:


Notice where “windows 7” is on the URL? The letter “q” is your search parameter in this case. You can go to Google Analytics under Admin> View Profile> View Settings> Site Search Tracking, set that to “ON,” and identify “q” as the search parameter. If you need more details and visuals to get this set up, you can review our post on setting up internal search tracking. For most setups, this should just set you back minutes, not days.

1. Use Your Internal Search Data … and Feature Results

If you have been tracking search terms for a while, you’ll see the most popular terms and group of terms bubble up to the top. For the same search we have conducted earlier on microsoft.com, you’ll see a sample of this:

Notice the “Microsoft Suggests” area? You could make the argument that it would have been better if the suggestion lead directly to the Windows 7 page, but the core idea is there: they know that the search term gets used a lot, and that it can be beneficial to “custom” present a page without relying on the search app’s main results.

Similarly, your top search terms will be full of terms you’ll recognize. Without surfing around for a new search app, a lot of engines come with the ability to feature results, and you should take advantage of this. It can help visitors avoid errors, and drive users to pages you want to drive attention to within the context of what the visitors want.

2. Simplify … and Keep the Number of Filters Down

Featuring results is one of the simplest things you can do that will still move the needle. Keeping the number of filters or facets down is almost as simple – at least, as far as technology goes.

Amy Africa, testing and e-commerce expert, recommends around 3 facets on your search page. That is, you can have 3 groups of filters, prioritized by order of importance, depending on what the user is looking for.

This is easy in the same way that avoiding clutter on the home page is easy. There are no technical hurdles – but keeping everyone in line, and not adding filters because one department or another wants something added can be a challenge.

3. Admit Errors … and Help Users Out

Further up the complexity ladder is how you handle it when there are no results found by your engine. Ideally, this does not happen a lot, and using your internal search data to help label and re-label things will help keep this in check. Admitting that this does happen can go a long way into solving the problem.

Here, you may not have as much control. Your options will be limited by the engine you are using:

  • Show that no results are found, and make it obvious. Don’t try and hide this out of embarrassment – even if this is a less than ideal circumstance, the fact that no results have been found is critical information for the visitor, so he or she can decide what to do next. Put the message on the body, and ensure that visitors will not miss the message.
  • Depending on whether your engine can handle misspellings, offer corrections. A significant amount of the time, mistyped information can quickly be corrected.
  • If you can, offer suggested synonyms with results. Again, you’ll need to see if your technology supports this, but you can often help the situation with synonyms of user searches that actually produce results on your site.
  • Offer most popular terms, or categories of popular searches. If spelling and similar search suggestions fail, you may still be able to salvage the situation. For “no results” pages, you can provide links to the most used searches on the web site, or the categories that those searches belong to.

4. Keep the Searcher Informed … and Prioritize Results

If you have designers and development resources, you can go one step further.

On the search results page, visitors should be reminded what their search was, told how many results were found, and shown what they can do to refine those searches. Amy Africa notes that visitors will look at six to eight things, but the majority of their attention will go to the first two. If the first two are incorrect, visitors will think your search function is broken.

Since you know what matters to the search user, you can rework the search page to drive a significant amount of attention to the things that users need: the search they conducted, the filters to refine the search, the information about results, and the first two results. The rest of the page should be more subdued than those elements.

Search is an important aspect of web sites, but you will not always have the tools you need to fix the user experience. If you make sure you at least have tracking enabled, you’ll be able to fix the simple issues. From there, you should work your way towards confronting the more complex issues like error pages and driving attention to the right places – you can use the data to justify expenses for the user experience improvements. After all, just because you are not in control of the search experience does not mean your visitors will give you a free pass.


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