The news from your Web hosting company is good: Web surfers are flocking to your online store in record numbers. The problem is, your sales aren’t reflecting this spike in hits. Something is wrong, but you’re convinced it’s not your product, prices or shipping fees. Perhaps visitors are having a hard time searching for what they want.

You have added a search window to your site, right?

“Consumers must be able to easily search on your site, especially when there are many products offered,” says Jeffrey Grau, senior analyst for Retail Ecommerce at eMarketer, a New York-based market research firm that specializes in Internet, business and ecommerce.

“Browsing categories is fine for those who want to explore the general neighborhood,” he says, “but search functionality is critical because it helps potential customers quickly pinpoint what they’re after.”

How to add search

An easy way to allow customers to search your website is to set up a search engine or search box. Most Web users are already familiar with Google and other search engines, although Grau says it might be a good idea to have a short blurb near the search window that gives visitors plain English tips on getting the most out of searching. The way it works is that a smaller version of a search engine is set up on your site and, instead of crawling all over the entire Web for results, it is customized to search only your company’s website.

Now, you can pay a Web design firm a lot of money to custom-design a search tool, but that doesn’t make sense in this day and age. It is easy to design a search box  as almost every site these days is powered by a database on the back-end, which is what holds the products (if a store) or the articles (if a blog), and so forth. Databases have built-in search functionality, so it’s up to you to ask whomever is running the web-to-database interface (a.k.a. “webmaster”) to include it in the design.

But should you want to use one of the many third-party options available on the Web, the following are some of the options to consider:

* Google Free WebSearch and Site Search. A fast, easy and free search tool that lets your visitors search your site or the Web.

* Web Side Story (formerly Atomz Search). Help your customers find the info, products or services they need with a customizable site search solution.

* Yahoo Web and Site Search. Simply cut and paste the provided HTML code into your website's HTML to provide a Yahoo! search box for site or Web queries.

Adding search to your site is “dead easy,” says Derek Sivers, president of Portland, Ore.-based CD Baby, the world’s largest online independent record store. “There’s no excuse, because it’s really ‘Programming 101,’” Sivers says. There’s no need for external software or plug-ins -- just build it right into your database-driven site, suggests Sivers. Sivers, whose company has sold nearly 2.7 million CDs worldwide (yielding more than $25 million in sales), concedes he underestimated the importance of search when the site when live in March of 1998. “I didn’t offer search initially, and it was a hard lesson to learn because I thought customers would want to browse the CD store,” he says. “They don’t.” Search engines such as Google have trained Web surfers to just search for everything, Sivers believes.

To help ensure your customers are finding what you want, experts offerthe following search-related tips:

  • Have a search window clearly visible on the top of every page and not just on the home page.
  • Save the queries typed into the search window so you can learn what and how your visitors to search. You will learn a lot about your customers, so find a way to build a database to analyze this information and peruse it regularly.
  • If you want to encourage sales, recommend similar products to customers. For example, if you enjoy the jazzy vocals of Melissa Boyce, CD Baby says to “Try This” with links to similar artists within the same genre. According to Sivers, 40 percent of all CDs purchased are from such recommendations. This is not a feature that has to go live immediately when you launch your search engine. Sivers says just have your webmaster keep track of related items in the database.
  • Watch your wordage around the search window. “Don’t be dry and scientific, such as ‘Type in word 1 and word 2’,” says Sivers. “It’s too geeky -- think of what real people want and the way real people talk. It shows you care.”
Published on: Oct 1, 2006