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How to optimize your e-commerce site search


Many businesses see site search as just a box to check on the UX checklist. But with acquisition harder than ever and customer expectations higher than ever, companies that don’t leverage the full power of site search are missing out. 

Site search can be an invaluable business tool, capable of driving sales, conversions, and positive user experiences. Yet, this all relies on configuring your site search intelligently. By carefully considering your e-commerce site search strategy and following certain site search best practices, you can turn your search into a competitive advantage. 


Importance of site search

Just how valuable is site search? On some sites, while less than 10% of users perform searches, these searchers account for approximately 40% of total revenue. Still, many e-commerce websites fail to devote resources to optimizing their e-commerce site search.

These sites are missing out on important benefits of site search, including:

  • Quickly and relevantly connecting customers to their needs
  • Improved user experiences
  • Reduced bounce rate 
  • Higher conversions
  • Giving users a better understanding of products, services, or content 
  • Valuable analytics data to help businesses understand customers and optimize results
  • Advanced merchandising functionality 
  • Optimizations to make mobile searching easier
  • Powerful A/B testing  to ensure results are as relevant as possible

In addition, site search features like promoted banners, recommended items, and filters and facets, drive content and product discovery. This allows users to engage with relevant products and content on your site that they were not aware of before, creating an unparalleled experience that keeps customers coming back. 


How to make your e-commerce site search effective

If your site is burdened with a basic e-commerce site search, you’re missing out on revenue and new customers. These e-commerce site search best practices can greatly elevate the design of your site search.


1. Filter results

It is important to give users the choice to filter search results to rapidly find the content or products they need. Offering filters and facets that narrow down results by brand, color, price, size, and more is an effective way to do this.

Automatic filtering is another capability that can help users find what they need faster. As the user searches, it automatically removes potential results based on certain cues in the user’s query. This allows for better matching of a user’s intent by breaking down and interpreting the semantics of their queries rather than performing simple text matching. For instance, if a user searches for “red toaster,” the system should return results that best match the description rather than just products with the word “red” in the description.


2. Use autocomplete

Smart autocomplete, also known as query suggestions, is a powerful UI tool. When users type a query, a drop down of predictions of more popular and/or specific queries appear.  This can have several positive effects, including:

  • Less typing for the customer (and less chance of them abandoning the site mid-search)
  • Guiding the customer to fine-tune their query, especially for longer, more precise queries or if they are experimenting with terms. This is especially important on mobile devices, as user attention spans are even shorter.
  • Bringing customers to results faster, with less trial and error.

If the search engine is responsive and relevant, autocomplete can provide a “conversational” experience. As the user types a query, it’s as if they are engaging in a discussion with the search bar that helps the search engine determine how to best return results. In order to do this effectively, these predictions should be tolerant of typos and grammatical errors to ensure the best results. 



3. Optimize breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs can help users navigate to find the product they’re looking for without fully redoing their search. A visual hierarchy of categories, for instance, can allow users to adjust the granularity of their searches. 


4. Use a federated search interface

federated search interface provides one the most intuitive and seamless ways for visitors to view products and content from all over the site. Federated searches can be configured to draw content as diverse as products, tutorials, videos, resource pages, and blogs into a single results page. That results on the page can be configured to be prioritized by importance and relevance to the user’s original query. This is a great way to enable customers to get acquainted with the diverse offerings of your site, without requiring them to dig into your sitemap or subdomains.


5. Personalize results

As Google becomes more and more personalized, customers get more accustomed to personalized search results across the web. While Google uses information like past search history and location, e-commerce sites can personalize results based on the user’s online behavior and include the user’s profile into the ranking strategy. This allows businesses to use customer needs and preferences to provide highly relevant and contextual search results. 

Dynamically influencing what the customer sees increases the probability that customers search and discover a range of products purchase that are most relevant to them. The end result? Increases in KPIs such as customer purchase frequency, average cart size, conversions, and revenue.


6. Optimize results

Ultimately, your e-commerce search platform should adjust dynamically to the needs of the business and the customers. A robust e-commerce site search platform can offer a variety of tools to drive optimizations, including:


Site Search Analytics

Every time a customer interacts with their search, they generate valuable business data for your site. Analyzing site search data helps you identify popular products, underperforming products, and gaps where users are looking for something you don’t offer. Site search data also reveals the searches that return “no results”—giving you a chance to fill this gap with relevant products and content (or direct users to related products they might like instead). 


E-commerce Merchandising Tools 

Merchandising is just as important online as it is in brick and mortar stores. By optimizing how products are displayed and recommended to customers, you can guide customers through the buyer’s journey, and optimise your online sales and/or conversion rate.

With a great site search tool, you can adjust ranking criteria for specific product areas or searches to nudge customers in the right direction. You can, for example, highlight specific brands, promote groups of items for certain queries, run marketing campaigns to promote a partnership with a supplier, optimize the results for specific queries such as popular queries, fine-tune your merchandising strategy per country, and much more. 


A/B Testing 

As you refine and enhance your site search, it’s critical to measure the effects of those changes. A/B testing provides valuable insight into how search improvements actually affect customers on your site. Testing different ranking criteria or product placement ideas helps e-commerce site owners understand which searches are driving the best results, which searches are underperforming, and adjust accordingly. All of this testing should be done, and with some search as a service providers can be done, without hurting the whole website if the newest strategy ends to be less effective.


E-commerce search bar best practices

It is clear that site search can have a huge impact on the customer experience and the business’ bottom line. The next logical question is, then, how do you encourage more users to interact with search?

There are a number of ways to improve the

UX and overall design of site search to drive more utilization and conversions: 

  • Use different colors. Outline the search box with a color that contrasts the site’s standard color scheme to quickly catch the eye and differentiate it from other aspects of the page.
  • Try a different font. Similar to the color contrast, a different font can be used in the search box to add additional contrast.
  • Have a search icon. Use common search-related icons such as a magnifying glass to help users identify search quickly and easily. 
  • Make it easy to find. By putting the search box in a prominent location high up on the page, the customer is more likely to start their journey with a search.
  • Use microcopy. Default or recommended search terms can help nudge customers to try a search. Common search queries from your existing customers work well for this.
  • Make search instant and automatic. Search results, filters, autocomplete, and breadcrumbs should all be automatically shown as a user types to minimize confusion and increase the likelihood of clicking a search result.


Choosing an e-commerce site solution

Choosing the right solution for your e-commerce site is very important. When you evaluate e-commerce site search tools, there are two major routes to consider: building the tool yourself or buying it from a third-party provider. 


There a number of trade-offs in either route:

Build it yourself  

Many companies that have large, experienced engineering teams are drawn to the idea of building their own site search tool. Building your own search infrastructure eliminates the cost of buying a prepackaged solution, and you can customize your in-house tool as much as you would like. This is particularly appealing for e-commerce sites with non-standard workflows, ranking criteria, or business models.  

However, there are some hidden costs to consider when you build your own tool. The investment of developer time and resources to build the tool from the ground up is only the beginning. There are ongoing maintenance and development needs for the search tool, and these needs grow over time as the site expands and evolves. 

In addition, you typically need a developer (or team) with extensive experience building search experiences to develop a truly robust, fast, and capable search engine. A few strong engineers can certainly build an MVP search product on top of open-source search engines, but a high-quality search tool with complex features (i.e. dynamic filtering, federated search, advanced merchandising options) requires a specialized team. And if key members of the development team leave the organization, it will take much longer to get a new developer up to speed on your in-house tool than it would for a third-party tool that offers detailed documentation and support. 

Lastly, building could create bottlenecks. If business teams require adjustments to the search tool to address business needs, they must rely on and wait for the engineers, creating inefficiencies. Thus, merchandisers, for instance, can’t independently tweak and adjust product positioning in their shop.


Buy a third-party search tool

Companies that do not have large development teams with search experience—or want to use their development teams for other priorities—often opt for a third-party search solution. There are a wide range of solutions for different types of e-commerce use cases: small retailers may be more drawn to plug-and-play search tools that provide basic features in minutes, while large retailers may be more interested in customizable, high-availability tools with advanced analytics. 

When starting out, cost can seem like a disadvantage to third-party solutions, as they typically require paying recurring subscription fees. Yet, many solutions are ready out-of-the-box with implementation taking only a few weeks. This prevents potential downtime and hassle for customers. All third party solutions are not equal, though. Most out-of-the-box solutions lack customizability and are limited in their feature set.

Search as a service solutions are right in the sweet spot of maximum customizability and quick implementation. Hosted by a third party, all the development, maintenance, and innovation costs are outsourced to the search provider. New features are continually developed, giving e-commerce site owners new tools and opportunities on an ongoing basis, and the third-party provider can scale as the business grows.   

The primary advantage to using a third-party solution is that all of the industry-standard best practices are already implemented and are regularly updated. Rather than investing a large amount of time in researching consumer behavior around search features and UX, a company can focus on implementing their core business logic and leave the deployment to someone else.


Your partner in e-commerce site search

Algolia works closely with e-commerce brands of all sizes to help improve site search to meet business goals. For more information on how to improve the search experience on e-commerce sites, download our free eBook, Search Beyond the Box.