Website search quality: why it’s bad and how it can be improved

How can Website search quality be improved? Marketers, according to a survey we conducted on behalf of Yext seem to be well aware of the link between customer experience and onsite search quality. We have also described how our panel of British CX experts have described the issue and the need to solve it. Here are a few additional thoughts brought to us by a panel of UX and UI experts from across the Channel, which could be useful to those marketers who are really convinced that there is an urgent need to solve this problem.

Transparency - informal networksDisclosure: this work was carried out on behalf of Yext. We have conducted this study and assignment with our usual aim of independence and authenticity

Website search quality: why it’s bad and how it can be improved

website search quality
Website search quality has a huge impact on customer experience and beyond, it also has a direct impact on e-merchants’ top and bottom lines.

Website search is considered strategic by marketers, who agree that the quality and accuracy of the results of such a website search engine has an impact on sales and customer experience, and that a poor website search engine means that most customers will try to find similar products and services by other means.

Following our study and a an online roundtable discussion which took place online in October, we organised another virtual meeting with a bunch of UX and UI experts from France. They were able to deliver simple actionable adivice to marketers who want to solve this issue.

In this piece, I will focus on these advice. Those of you who are interested in reading the full UK report can do so by clicking the following button or directly at vismktg.info/yextlpuk

Website search quality: why it's bad and how it can be improved

Download the full study report here

Website research: practical tips from our digital marketing experts

An online roundtable discussion was held on November 16 with a group of French customer experience and marketing influencers to flesh out the findings of our report.

influiencers' mugshots
Our French panel of marketing experts for this study on website search conducted in partnership with Yext in France and the UK

From top to bottom and left to right:

Our experts’ recommendations in a nutshell

Cyril Bladier suggested that marketers should take advantage of the low quality of the majority of on-site search engines, confirmed by our study, to improve theirs and differentiate themselves from their competitors.

Frederic Cavazza insisted that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to differentiate your business. It is now a matter of survival in the online war against search engines and social media platforms that are stealing customers and visits from e-commerce websites and sending them to their own marketplaces.

Frederic ric Canevet pointed out that about 14% of online sales are generated through onsite search engines and that it was therefore necessary to give them more visibility.

Finally, Olivier Sauvage compared the online shopper to the hunter-gatherer of prehistoric times, reminding us that our brains are very small, but consume a lot of energy. As a result, users have a great need for simplicity, and are seeking guidance on websites. This means limiting the choices within the results pages, which should be as uncluttered as possible. This is achieved by making it easy for them, refraining from presenting them with too many choices and analysing their queries.

Detailed presentation of the recommendations on how Website Search Quality can be improved

Cyril Bladier: Differentiation through Website Search Quality isn’t an option!

Our survey of 300 marketers in the UK and France revealed a disconnect between what customers experience when using on-site search and the apparent complacency of marketers who fail to improve that experience. Cyril confirmed this impression. However, he also pointed out that this focus on customer experience is an opportunity for marketers to differentiate themselves. 

This study on the impact of on-site search quality on customer experience, conducted by Visionary Marketing in Autumn 2021 on behalf of Yext, clearly highlights a huge paradox.

We noted that marketers were aware that there was a problem of matching the quality of on-site search engines with customer expectations. 

Our respondents were even perfectly aware of the strategic importance of website search engines, but at the same time, the majority of them admit they are failing to address this issue. 

When something is broke, do fix it!

Cyril Bladier urges us to cast a different look at this issue: “If your competitors are happy with this situation, it means you have a huge opportunity at hand to differentiate your offer and create an outstanding customer experience which will last.”

Let’s take the example of retail, “most retailers are content with their loyalty programmes” Cyril added, but “is that enough to keep a customer happy and make them stay on your site even though their user experience is not satisfactory?” Obviously, this is a rhetorical question.

In markets where brands are relatively unimportant, where the customer is primarily looking for an answer to a problem, if the search engine isn’t good enough, customers will inevitably look elsewhere. Probably with the help of an Internet search engine like Bing, Duckduckgo or Google. 

As for the reasons for the poor performance of onsite search engines, Cyril Bladier puts forward two assumptions: 

  1. number one assumption is that the company was at fault for not managing its products and engine properly. That isn’t very plausible, he said, as “in general, businesses know and care about product presentation”,
  2. Number two assumption is that businesses have a poor knowledge of their customers and their online behaviours. This is a much more likely hypothesis in his view. 

“I often see a gap between a company’s perception of how its customers behave and what they really have in mind, their online product search, their problems…” explains Cyril. 

For example, he describes the rise of non-branded searches. These grew by 31% three years ago, then by 56%, and again by 13% last year. They have doubled in five years on mobile and now account for 80% of all online searches according to Google. Yet brands “continue to invest millions of dollars in promotion when online consumers are looking for something other than their brand.” Cyril quotes Havas as saying that “three quarters of brands [could] disappear without anyone being upset.” 

Back to basics: customer focus is key

According to Cyril, a real understanding of customers’ needs and expectations will solve this issue. It will then be necessary to put in place extremely precise online monitoring tools, understanding conversion rates, channel by channel, what works and what doesn’t, with highly developed and very analytical dashboards. 

This is what will allow smart marketers to turn this challenge into a differentiation opportunity, which logically leads us to the set of recommendations, by Frederic Cavazza.

Frederic Cavazza: platforms are a threat to brands’ own online presence

Frederic Cavazza in turn highlighted the fact that the results of our study showed that there was an opportunity to differentiate. More than that, it’s a matter of survival in the face of platforms that are diverting users and visitors to lead them directly to their marketplaces. According to the founder of Sysk, it is high time to react, especially as attempts to regulate these players are not bearing fruit in the short term. 

According to Frederic, search engines or social platforms that once helped e-merchants find traffic, and therefore customers, have turned against them and become their main competitors. 

Website search quality
First option on the top left: “Buy on Google” (screen shot deliberately cropped) – One more reason to beef up the quality of your own website search
Search engines and social platforms have become your competitors

Nowadays, these players have all built-in shopping features. “Do a search on the latest “Call of Duty” on Google Shopping and you will notice that you are offered to buy it directly on their platform. 

It’s the same on Facebook with integrated online shops. You can buy directly on Facebook or Instagram. Everything is done inside the apps.

Brands are being bypassed and therefore they lose contact with their customers. They are relegated to the secondary role of mere suppliers. We must therefore be “wary of the habits that have been developed over the last 20 years”, warns Frederic Cavazza.  

Do you want your customers to get all the information about your products from Google?

Moreover, the further we go, the more Google is able to provide customers with answers to their questions with extracts and structured information. For example, on opening hours, product features, etc. 

Do e-merchants want their customers to get all the information about your products from Google?

This means, as Cyril Bladier has already pointed out, that Internet users no longer need to go to a brand’s site. As a result, e-merchants no longer know who they are, nor what they are searching for. Content-blockers and the blocking of third-party advertising cookies in particular means that customers intending to buy are turned into mere visitors. 

This is Frederic’s second warning: if e-tailers fail to pay attention, Google will bypass them and provide the answers to their customers’ questions. Unless it’s  Amazon, whose search engine is second to none.

“Over the years,” Frederic went on, “social platforms and search engines have offered more and more tools and content and that leads to a change in the habits of Internet users. 

For example, some people will go directly to Amazon for product search, because they have so many products in store, and also because of their customer reviews and product-related photos and content. This material “helps customers in their decision making process and is also a way to bypass brands.” 

“These three factors should prompt advertisers to get their act together, provide better answers to their customers and, first and foremost, improve their onsite customer experience,” Frederic Cavazza concluded. 

This brings us to Frederic Canevet’s presentation, which provides marketers with down-to-earth advice on how to improve the quality of their Website Search functionality.

Frédéric Canevet: simple tips to improve on-site research

Frederic Canevet, our third presenter, insisted on the fact that about 14% of revenues are generated through onsite search engines. It is therefore necessary to give them more visibility. Let’s take a look at some of those good practices described by Frederic.

Good practices for Website Search Quality improvement by Frédéric Canevet

on-site search engines are an essential part of e-commerce conversion

“On-site search engines are key: when they are well implemented, conversion rates can be multiplied by 1.8,” explains Frederic, one of the most prominent Marketing bloggers in France and a product manager at Eloquant, a CRM vendor. He then went on to deliver six major tips for the optimisation of onsite search engines. 

  1. Check the compatibility of your search engine with smartphones. “We often come across conflicts between the mobile search engine and chatbots”, warns Frederic ric Canevet. It is therefore advisable to check that your search engine has not been cannibalised by your chat window, 
  2. Today’s customers’ reviews will attract tomorrow’s customers. A search engine that incorporates customer reviews will make a real difference. Several studies show that around 70% of Internet users give up on a purchase if the reviews on a product are negative and that, conversely, 60% of them buy a product because of the positive reviews they have read. It is therefore advisable to prompt customer for reviews right after the act of purchase, or when the person receives the product, by voice message for example, by explaining why leaving a review is important to you. These are easy and inexpensive tips to implement, yet they make it possible to increase the number of reviews and boost sales,
  3. Tracking customer journeys: you need to use mouse-tracking tools such as Hotjar, Smartlook or Yandex to visualise a customer’s journey on the website and analyse it, explains Frédéric Canevet,
  4. Make your search engine more visible. Look at best practices and learn from their examples, starting with Amazon. Studies show that the search engine alone can amount to 13.8% of the revenues generated by a website. It is therefore important to optimise it as much as possible. It is advisable you make the search window at least 30 characters long, because the smaller the window, the more people are restricted in their queries. It is also necessary to analyse unsuccessful searches at least once a month and to supplement these responses with suggestions for best-selling products. Finally, words matter: “no product matches your search”, which is a negative phrase, should be replaced with positive information. You can also give the person the opportunity to leave you a message, fill in a contact form or call a telephone number or chat with an assistant,
  5. Visuals matter too: product photos and prices, when they are directly available within search engine results, provide visual confirmation that you have found the right product, 
  6. Lastly, highlighting promotions within search results will help you boost your sales too.

With this practical advice in hand, our readers can now peruse Olivier Sauvage’s strategic advice. Olivier concluded this webinar with a wealth of practical recommendations.

Olivier Sauvage: simplicity is the mother of profit

Olivier Sauvage is the founder of the French UX consultancy Wexperience. He took us back to the age of the hunter-gatherer, and reminded us that our brains are very small, and consume a lot of energy. Users are therefore looking for simplicity and want to be guided on websites. E-merchants must therefore help them to make choices among search results presented as simply as possible and in a very short time. Olivier explained that a lot of attention must be paid to the analysis of existing queries before proceeding to narrow down search results pages.

The consumer, the hunter-gatherer of the 21st century

Selecting a product on the web still is an amazingly complex process and it doesn’t have to

The hunter-gatherer of prehistoric times has nothing in common with the “web hunter” who goes searching for products online, Olivier explained to us. And yet, his brain is still more or less the same, an organ which consumes a lot of energy and is therefore eager for simplicity.

That being said, “selecting a product on the web still is an amazingly complex process and it doesn’t have to”, insisted Olivier. 

The question is therefore how to guide the user in his search and help him find the right product as quickly as possible.

“On the Web, we use almost only one sense to search, namely sight. The buyer’s abilities are therefore limited compared to his hunter-gatherer ancestor” Olivier Sauvage added. 

Visual clues  

The prehistoric hunter-gatherer knew everything about “his main objective, which was to kill an elephant”, explains Olivier Sauvage. “On the Web, the modern hunter-gatherer will collect a set of criteria that he will transform into visual clues.” 

For example, “a sofa, which in the customer’s mind has to be yellow, must not exceed a certain price and must have a certain style”. Consumers will transform all these criteria into images and “it is these images that they will hunt for on the Web.” the UX expert said.

As soon as he arrives on a website, a user will try to find what interests him as quickly as possible (time is of the essence). There is a wide variety of possible strategies for finding a product, including browsing through the menu structure or using the site’s internal search engine.

Olivier confirmed that “most of the time, users go through the onsite search engine”. One of the most important things for an e-merchant is therefore to ensure that this search engine is visible on the screen. 

The memorization of the search engine by the user

Users try to locate the onsite search engine by looking for a large white rectangle with a magnifying glass

“Most of the time, it is represented by a large white rectangle at the top of the page and is often accompanied by a small magnifying glass. The 21st century hunter-gatherer will therefore look for a large white rectangle with a small magnifying glass.

This is the first step, where users will rely on these images that have formed in their brains. 

Website search quality improvement
What a typical search result path looks like

Then, once the query has been made, the user will scan the results that are shown by the system. 

In this example (right), our user will search for his main target (a yellow sofa) amongst the search results page. And he will scroll down the page until he finds what he is looking for. 

The user will glance left and right across the page, trying to find this visual representation of the sofa.

He even goes back and forth when he gets to the bottom of the page and then goes back up again, because he didn’t notice the yellow sofa immediately. 

This is a rather long and complex process. Not to mention that before finding what they are looking for, consumers will click through several pages of results. 

“This type of research is extremely tiring,” says Olivier.

This is because “we search with our brain, not with our eyes. The brain is a relatively small organ, accounting for 2-3% of the total mass of the human body volume, but consuming 23-25% of our daily energy.” Olivier explained.

The work of UX designers is therefore to simplify and shorten this search so that the consumer reaches his goal as quickly as possible. 

Rules for improving the quality of an Wevsite search engine

From an onsite search engine perspective, this means “that you have to find the best match between what users are looking for and the way you show the result to them”, explains Olivier Sauvage. To do this, Olivier has issued a few recommendations.

  1. Your search results should be ideally placed on your page. Most of the time, at the top left of the screen,
  2. Do not show too much information at once to keep only that which is most relevant to the user’s search,
  3. Provide the user with additional tools such as filters and product comparisons to help make his search faster. Such tools are often placed at the top of the search results pages,
  4. Simplify the interface.

In this case, if the user types “yellow sofa” into the search engine window, all yellow sofas should ideally be placed at the top left of the page. This is known as Fitts’ law, which consists in shortening the user’s path as much as possible so that he or she makes the least effort possible. 

This law is named after its inventor: Paul Fitts, a psychologist at Ohio State University. It was created in 1954 and is used to “predict the time spent moving and selecting a target item” based on the principle that “smaller or more distant items necessarily take longer to reach”
Source : Usabilis.com

There are two main takeaways from Olivier’s speech

  1. Before designing a search engine, you need to thoroughly study the queries both on external search engines such as Bing, Duckduckgo or Google, but also on your site: how people search, what terms they use, what colloquial expressions might be used, how many keywords, etc. Then compare the results you offer them with the keywords they are looking for. The first thing to do is to understand how people use your search engine, so that you can adjust your interface design later,
  2. Secondly, your search interface should be kept as simple as possible, with a results page which should be as uncluttered as possible. This will make it easier for people to find what they are looking for and improve your conversion rates. 

In conclusion, there is a lot of room for improvement given the high expectations from website visitors with regard to Website Search Improvement.

This webinar enabled us to confirm the results obtained through our autumn 2021 study, as well as the significance of onsite search engines and simple guidelines were issued by our experts.  

They are rather easy to implement and they should allow marketers who want to improve their customer experience to reap significant benefits in terms of revenue. 

All that remains is for marketers to implement those recommendations and improve their online shoppers’ perception of Website Search Quality.

Website search quality: why it's bad and how it can be improved

Download the full study report here

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