I’ve recently taken on a project which includes a complicated “Internal” site search. This website not only needs to be found on the web, but members can run specific searches against specific elements on the website, click on subcategories and then create filters. Sounds a bit like an eCommerce search, right? Well, it’s not, but eCommerce is a good starting point. This blog article is going to explore what I know about internal website search and places they have solved it well or not so well.
First off, there are two kinds of searches online as you should know by now. You got your World Wide Web search now referred to as a Google search, and an internal website search. It may not be so easy to figure out which kind you are doing these days, because an internal search quite often is using Google and/or the Google Appliance, a box Google sells you that manages a “Google like” private search engine for your website.
I first ran into a hybrid search, what I call “Directed Search” when I was hired for a consulting gig at The Limited, VictoriasSecret.com. They had no search box at the time. The year was 2005. I mention that, because that shows how large, successful brands, can get stuck in the past. They required the customers to click on the word search, then click on something like a bra. Then you would have to choose your size and finally choose a style and color. It was like 9 clicks to checkout. Well that was unacceptable. But it made sense from a technical standpoint. A lot of things make sense from a technical point of view. Having a system that holds people’s hands through a step by step search can make sense, but not with bras. At VictoriasSecret.com, later that year after I had left, the search became a search box, and finally you could put the word “Pink” in that box and get some results and then make adjustments on the left for price, color, size, etc. Point is, that not all searches are equal.
I have been studying two well used online internal search paradigms to solve my problem, Linkedin.com and Bankrate.com. Both websites have a complicated, MIT level issue with data, and getting customers to the right answer, without taking up too much time and without losing them in “advanced” areas. I think both sites live and die by helping the members find their way to a person/company or whatever int he case of Linkedin.com and to a mortgage company in the case of Bankrate.com.
Basic Versus Advanced
I think we can all agree that the best searches have a limited amount of functionality at first. If you read my article on “2 Online Marketing Segments: Insecure Focused, Secure Unfocused“, you will see that you need to accommodate the less sophisticated, yet ready to go, user like myself first and foremost. I admit I don’t read everything, and I would guess that 80% of the population is like me. But for that 20%, there are extreme details they want to know, and they WILL use the advanced search. So, you got to keep everybody happy. It is not easy for Linkedin.com for instance. You will notice they have it easy to find people, but if you start peeling back the layers, the advanced search is there.
One Click Versus Many
One UI goal and conversion goal for all searches is to reduce the clicks. This means if something can be done in one click that’s great and lets say no clicks, that’s even better. Remember with JQuery you can have a no click solution, where people type things in, look at Answers.com and others, and have it change as you enter your search terms. The way that Linkedin.com solves this is by having a little drop down for the search, which means you can choose what kind of search you are starting before you enter data, people, company, group, etc. This is really innovative and useful.
Complications & Third Parties
So sometimes a search can not be as straight forward. There could be third parties who have ad-space making it advantageous for search to take a little bit longer (a few clicks). Bankrate.com is a great example of searches where, in order to search customers correctly, they have to know where you are looking to get a mortgage and what type you are looking for to even start the search. For instance I would be looking for a 30 Year Fixed in Boca Raton, Florida. Then they can start the search… So for some searches it is more about getting the basics in place, and then start the filtering.
No matter what kind of search you set up. Trust me the Google Appliance is not for everybody and there are still about 15 companies out there which provide third party internal Saas search products like Omniture and Autonomy. If you are an eCommerce company you can’t live without them.