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Best practice for your site search

Best practices for your site search

From visual design to functionality, learn how to ensure your site’s search is optimized and serving your users.

Douglas Ross

Douglas Ross 31 October 2022

Whether you are in a private or public space, your site search is crucial for helping your users access services, information, and products. As a lifeline in their journey with you, search is a powerful driver of user behavior and a great tool for analysis.

In a recent Squiz webinar, Davila Thompson, Sales Engineer, discusses how you can approach your search to ensure you’re up to date with best practices. We’ve distilled some of what she said below.

Make search easy to find

The discoverability of your search has a major impact on how often it’s used.

In our 2019 Squiz Summit, Allan Etkin, Search Manager at British Columbia Institute of Technology, revealed that when his team removed their search field and replaced it with a small magnifier glass, search dropped by 20%. This is despite the magnifier glass being synonymous with search. And when you consider that search users are three times more likely to convert, this can have some serious consequences on the bottom line of your business.

Some tips to make your search easy to find:

  • Where a magnifier glass represents search (e.g., on a cell phone), test different sizes to make sure it’s discoverable.
  • Place your search within your navigation bar.
  • Make your search available on every webpage. Search is a user’s lifeline when browsing.
  • Consider making search a prominent feature of your homepage and test different designs to see the impact on user behavior. A great example of this prioritization is the Wellington City Council website.

Ensure the results are relevant and contextual

Set up your search to always present users with the most valuable pages relating to their search. This can help reduce pressure on your support team and improve perceptions of your brand or organization.

In the context of a government website, a user searching for “building consent” or “planning approvals” is likely to look for information on how to apply for approval when building or renovating a home. A search result would therefore prioritize a relevant landing page for this search and not the latest council meeting regarding a niche planning discussion. This may mean prioritizing surfacing high-level pages of your site (i.e., landing pages) before you surface individual documents or meeting notes.

Some search platforms like Funnelback Search allow you to customize how results appear, based on location, keywords, time periods, and other behaviors. This can help you hone your search functionality to match user expectations.

Make all of your content searchable

Is your search surfacing important information from all your channels, or just the platform on which it’s built?

If you’re a business or government organization, you might store information on other platforms – from social media channels to partner websites. Indexing all these different channels can help you bring more information to users when searching on your site.

Check to see if your search provider can cross those platform siloes. Can it display relevant information from another website that’s linked to your own? If not, your users aren’t getting all the information they might need.

Empower your users

People can type in the same phrase when searching, but with different needs.

A search for “waste” on a government website could be from those looking for policy information, commercial waste partnerships, key garbage pickup dates – the list goes on.

So, how can you make sure the one search term surfaces the right information for these different user drives? The answer lies in taking the pressure off your system and instead giving power to your users.

Your search platform should offer the ability to add filters to search results. This means users don’t have to search again and helps them refine their search with a simple click.

Search refinement

Check out the above search result page by Timaru District Council, another gem from the Land of the Long White Cloud (a.k.a. New Zealand). Those searching for “waste” can filter their results by “Services”, “News”, “Parks and facilities”, “District plan” and more.

Allow for mistakes

Our ability to accurately input information is impeded by all types of factors. Your users might have a broken arm in a sling; they could be experiencing macular degeneration, or maybe they’re just in a rush with a toddler at their side.

This means misspelled queries are common in searches, as are different names for services or searches.

Someone in the U.S. might search for “garbage day”. But those down under in Australia typically know it as “bin day’” If they’re both after the same information but searched for it differently, their search results need to be the same.

Meeting user needs as well as accessibility standards, a good search platform can accommodate both errors/misspellings and differences in search terms that share the same intent.

Encourage the click

Your design matters, as it encourages click-through rates. That’s why a smart approach to search uses both content and visual design to prompt users to take action.

For search results, content considerations like page titles, summaries, and dates can help give them a better idea of a page before they click through.

The design of search results will shape user behavior. Google displays different content modules based on your search. Search for “car repair” on Google, and you’ll be presented with businesses near you that offer this service. Search for “How to clean my dog” and Google might present you with cleaning products and a featured article of instructions.

These different designs shape user behavior – from where they look on the screen to what they click on. Consider how the visual design of your search results page shapes user behavior.

Google results

Be personal

For large websites and well-known brands, chances are you will have users visiting from different localities – even overseas.

You can set automatic rules or allow users to set filters to present them with information relevant to their location, language, or self-segmentation filter (i.e., local citizen vs. staff).

If you have a smaller site, you might choose to start by giving users the option to filter by language. This means important information in their language can be prioritized in their search results.

Understand your content

Creating a strong site search involves ongoing analysis of your content in the backend.

Rather than trying to clean up 1,000+ pages and PDF files all at once, creating clear milestones for organizing your content over time will help you gain a more in-depth understanding of your content.

In the backend, use your search platform to identify and streamline some of the following:

  • Duplicated documents and links and broken links
  • Missing translations
  • Missing metadata (e.g., meta titles and descriptions)
  • Out-of-date/redundant content – e.g., phone numbers or email addresses

Funnelback search backend

Understand and act on user behavior

Analysing user behavior through search queries is a powerful way to respond to their needs. It can also shape how and when you present information across your website and other channels.

For instance, you might find search queries related to fire preparedness spike one month into fire season in your district. This can inform the timing and placement of related content across both your website and other channels (i.e., social media, print campaigns, and local events).

Break up your approach to a good search

To help surface relevant results to users immediately, you can break up your approach to building effective searches.

Consider thinking about your approach along with visual design, content design, and search functionality. Breaking it up into these three areas can help you set clear timelines and goals for your enterprise search.

You can also dive deeper into the tips above by watching Davila Thompson’s webinar.