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How to optimise the search function on your website

How to optimise the search function on your website

For larger websites, a site search can have a tremendous impact on the bottom line of your organisation. Here’s how to make the most of it.

Stéphane Recouvreur

Stéphane Recouvreur 25 October 2022

Make it easy to find

Don’t make your users search… for your search bar. Thankfully, most websites adopt a similar pattern in terms of positioning and look-and-feel.

Depart from accepted norms at your own peril.

Position

Top-right or top center is the most common location for search bars, in line with the F-shaped scanning pattern, that most users follow.

Wherever the search bar sits on the homepage, ensure it sits in the same spot on all other pages, for consistency.

Search bar position

Design

Include a magnifying glass - which is what most users expect to see-  and make it big.

Case in point: the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) lost $70,000 of revenue in just 6 weeks after its design team decided to replace the search bar with a small magnifying glass in the top right-end corner. BCIT’s web team rapidly noticed a significant drop in the number of sessions using search – and more importantly – a drop in the number of applications on the back of this single change.

Clean your results

An ideal search experience provides your users with the right answer immediately, without the need to trawl through a long list of results.

You can get an idea of how quickly users are finding a relevant result by looking at search refinements, search depth, and time after the search.

Removing irrelevant pages from your results will increase the overall relevance of your search function and the speed with which users can find what they need.

Hide sections of your website

Your robots.txt file instructs your own search crawlers on what section of your website should be included in your results. This is an effective and scalable way to hide content that you wouldn’t want a user to see in their search results, such as “thank you” pages, shopping cart pages, or out-of-date content.

Below is an example of how to prevent Funnelback Search from crawling your login and search pages.

robotx txt

Since robots.txt works at a directory level, they can hide entire sections of your site – so use it with caution!

Hide irrelevant pages

Indexing has the same objective as robots.txt, but works at a page level, enabling you to be far more precise about which content to hide.

no index

For example, noindex tags can be used to tell your search engine not to index content in headers and footers; meaning that a search for “contact” might only show your dedicated ‘contact’ page, rather than every page on your site with a “contact us” link in the footer.

Remove broken links

Ensure that users aren’t shown pages that no longer exist by regularly checking and removing broken links. Doing so will make for a better search experience, while also boosting your SEO.

You can check for broken links on your website using Ahrefs’ free Broken Link Checker.

Broken Link Checker

Limit the use of dynamically generated pages

Dynamic pages are pages that display different content each time they’re either viewed, based on the time of the day for example or based on user input, such as the result pages on Google.

These pages are extremely difficult for search crawlers to index and often don’t appear in results at all. This is a well-known problem for e-commerce - some websites dynamically generate category pages such as “Shoes” or “Male Shirt”, preventing Google to index and rank its content.

To mitigate the problem, and if you MUST index such pages, here’s what you can do:

  • Limit the number of parameters in the URL to just one or two, using friendly names.
  • Filter pages should include a canonical link back to the main page.
  • Create sitemaps to help your crawler understand your website better.

Canonical

Get your rankings right

Another way to ensure users see the most relevant results first is to prioritize your rankings effectively.

Train your data

Most advanced search engines, such as Funnelback Search, use AI to learn, over time, what makes a result relevant to your users.

This could be anything from how recently it was published to how often it appears in page titles – and rank accordingly. The ranking tool enables you to teach the AI which terms are most relevant for your users based on how your content is written.

We recommend using this tool for up to 50 of your most common search terms.

Modify your ranking algorithm

In some edge cases, you might still need to alter the ranking results for some specific searches. Enters curator, a simple tool to precisely specify what page(s) you would like to return for any given keywords.

Nobody knows better than you what your users expect to see for popular searches, and such insights might help you to dramatically increase click-through and user satisfaction.

Include metadata

The more information your web pages can provide to your web crawler, the more accurate your ranking will be.

Such information includes:

  • a descriptive title
  • meta description
  • a clean and descriptive URL
  • keyword mentions in the body of your page
  • Date
  • Author
  • Language
  • Publisher
  • Format

Funnelback’s Content auditor tool can identify missing metadata across your website, enabling you to back-fill any missing information.

Content auditor

Common principles include using descriptions for hyperlink text (e.g. ‘join our webinar’ instead of “click here”) and using text instead of images to convey important information (such as names and links). Check out Google’s webmaster guidelines for more ways to make your site more searchable.

Keep things organized and use clear naming conventions

For both website headings and your back-end website content directory, clearly labeling and organizing content will help crawlers to find and index it.

For example, referencing a product’s name in the header of its dedicated page, then naming and locating that page’s content sensibly at the back-end of your site (e.g. products/funnelback).

Fill the gaps

The only thing worse than a set of results that aren’t highly relevant is ‘0 results’. A blank results page is a literal gap in the user experience, leaving them with two options: abandon their search (and, probably, your website) or consider alternative search terms (additional mental load). Minimize the chances of a ‘0 results’ page by doing any of the following options.

Unanswered searches

Creating new content

If users are searching for content that doesn’t exist on your website, take the hint and create it for them. Funnelback Search’s ‘Top unanswered keywords’ report shows the most common queries that provide ‘0 results’ or incomplete results. This is a convenient tool to help identify opportunities for adding highly relevant new content to your site, bolstering your internal and external SEO.

Providing a “best bet”

In an ideal world, your website would be able to satisfy every user query. In reality, some users are simply in the wrong place and the best service you can provide is directing them to a site where they’re more likely to have their query answered – also known as a ‘best bet’. This is common on government websites, where a citizen is searching for something beyond a particular department’s jurisdiction (e.g. searching for subsidized pharmaceuticals on the Department of Health’s website).

A simple banner or short message, explaining that the proposed website might be more suitable, is more helpful than allowing users to search for something they’ll never find – and more likely to leave them with a positive view of your organization.

Best bet

Learn your customers’ language

In some cases, the information your customers are searching for exists on your website, but the terms they’re typing into the search aren’t an exact match. The most common reasons for this are misspellings or a difference between the language you and your customers are using.

In both cases, you can easily smooth over the potential gap by prompting users with a “did you mean” link, providing alternative spellings or synonym suggestions.

Synonyms

Encourage click-throughs

To increase the chances of users taking the next step and clicking on one of the results offered, there are a few extra ways to reassure them that that particular result will be helpful:

Write better descriptions

Ensure that your meta descriptions - the short, one-liner descriptions, explaining each result - give a very clear summary of what’s provided, to entice users to click through. As mentioned earlier, the meta description is a type of metadata that can be included in the HTML code at the top of each webpage.

Refine the results

Help users quickly narrow down their results even more with a filter tool. This can sit immediately next to the results (usually on the left-hand side) and enable users to refine their results in just a few clicks. The fewer results they have to trawl through, the higher the chance of them clicking through.

Provide recommendations

Help users to expand on their search by sharing additional query recommendations that might be relevant and help enhance their search experience; for example, People who were interested in this item were also interested in…​

In Funnelback Search, recommendations can be configured based on a given “seed” item, such as a list of URLs that were clicked on in the same search session or a list of products that were frequently purchased in the same session as a given product.

Start somewhere

Search is one of the most important parts of the customer journey and deserves significant consideration. Regardless of the current state of your search function, every improvement you make has a direct impact on the overall experience and, as shown in BCIT’s case, a dollar value for your business.