In a pre­vi­ous post, I wrote about the ben­e­fits of ramp­ing up your onsite search.

To fol­low up, I did a quick and dirty review of cur­rent writ­ing on site search best prac­tices. I found that a lot of folks are miss­ing out on the ben­e­fits of site search by mak­ing some com­mon mistakes.

Let’s look at the top offenders.

Mis­take 1: Neglect Mobile

At the end of 2013, there were more than 1.3 bil­lion smart­phone users globally—a 17 per­cent increase from 2009.

Friends, mobile is not an emerg­ing trend. It’s the new nor­mal, and site search is a big com­po­nent of mak­ing it usable. In fact, search­ing for stuff is often the main point of a mobile homepage.

Two sim­ple ideas for opti­miz­ing mobile search are mak­ing but­tons big for touch screens and includ­ing auto­cor­rect for devices with Lil­liput­ian key­pads. There are lots of oth­ers. The point is to pay atten­tion to mobile search and build it into your company’s mobile strategy.

Mis­take 2: Get Clever with the Search Box

Research has shown that most peo­ple look for a site search box at the top of the page, usu­ally in the right-hand corner.

Now is not the time to inno­vate. Don’t put the box on the bot­tom or in a nav­i­ga­tion menu. Don’t call it some­thing clever—call it “Search.” Make it obvi­ous. Off­set the col­ors if needed. On mobile-optimized pages or apps, the search box should be the most obvi­ous thing on the page. Unless, of course, you want nav­i­ga­tion or scrolling to be the pri­mary con­tent dis­cov­ery method. Let your user expe­ri­ence data deter­mine that for you.

Mis­take 3: Make It Slow

We already know that the speed of your over­all web­site is crit­i­cal for user expe­ri­ence and SEO. I can’t say it any bet­ter than this arti­cle from the Moz Blog:

“There is lit­er­ally a decade of research from usabil­ity experts and ana­lysts on how web per­for­mance affects user expe­ri­ence. Fast web­sites have more vis­i­tors, who visit more pages, for longer period of times, who come back more often, and are more likely to pur­chase prod­ucts or click ads.”

In a nut­shell, every­thing we know about site speed and user expe­ri­ence is also rel­e­vant for search speed. For exam­ple, you prob­a­bly don’t need a lot of big-file, high-resolution pho­tos for your mobile screen. Thumb­nails will work fine. Keep site search fast, and users will have more rea­son to con­vert quickly and use again.

Mis­take 4: Return “No Results Found

It’s been said that the worst insult is indif­fer­ence, and a site search that returns “no results found” feels kind of like … well, like no one cares that you’re there.

User expe­ri­ence includes intan­gi­bles as well as objec­tive results. Your goal should be giv­ing the user a mean­ing­ful response every time.

One of the most basic ways to com­bat “no results” is sim­ply to auto­cor­rect for mis­spellings or sug­gest syn­onyms for key­words. There’s also a range of tac­tics for redi­rect­ing traf­fic to related con­tent or prod­ucts. You could also pro­vide a default list­ing of top pages, sim­i­lar to what some 404 pages do, if no results show for a par­tic­u­lar query. And some big enter­prises are using sophis­ti­cated tools that com­bine seman­tic tech and Big Data insights for gran­u­lar, per­son­al­ized results.

The point is to avoid total dead ends. Even if your search lit­er­ally does not have any results to return, care­ful han­dling can cre­ate a good user experience.

Mis­take 5: If You Build It, They Will Come (and Stay, and Convert)  

The best site search is always a work in progress. Don’t build it and for­get about it. Test every change, and work your search ana­lyt­ics hard to gain insight into what users want.

Maybe searchers are look­ing for con­tent (or even prod­ucts) you don’t have. Search query data can sug­gest which queries per­form best in con­ver­sions or click throughs. Fre­quently used key­words can be worked into con­tent. How can you use these insights to improve user expe­ri­ence or to beef up other ele­ments of your mar­ket­ing program?

Mis­take 6: Offer a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

Empow­er­ing users to tai­lor online search is a fea­ture of all the top online retail­ers and, I’d argue, any top-notch web­site. Offer a range of fil­ter­ing, sort­ing, and dis­play options while still keep­ing it rel­e­vant to the most com­mon user intents. Increased inter­ac­tion makes the expe­ri­ence richer and increases the chances of return­ing rel­e­vant results.

Sum­ming It Up

These ideas are a start­ing point for improv­ing your company’s site search or jump­ing into the field. Are there other mis­takes you see often or that you’ve made and learned from yourself?


Hi Dave,

I just came across the article, its really good and helps to rectify my mistakes. Thanks for sharing a valuable article.