Site Search Engines: Do We Need Them?

Gerry McGovern recently wrote an interesting article: do you really need search on your web site?

In it he suggests that because the number of searches is a small fraction of the page views on his site (0.5%) it's not worth spending time and effort to make search work well and therefore he might be better off not having it at all.

While it's certainly true that it's hard to make search work well on your site, I wonder if this simple statistic tells the full story.

Quality vs Quantity

If someone is searching for something on your site they are obviously pretty interested in finding that particular piece of content.

If you're selling something on your site (goods or services), that visitor is quite likely to be a potential customer. If they've gone to the effort of actually typing something into your search box, you might also conclude that they are a fairly serious customer as well.

Let's say you provide a good experience for that visitor (i.e. they find what they're looking for). I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that they might be more likely to take the next step and purchase from you than someone who surfed on in or clicked on a search engine result.

Consequently, it may be worth considering visitors who search to be 'higher quality' than those who do not - they are showing that they have clear intent to find something on your site and therefore may have a higher likelihood of purchasing from you.

Of course, you have to weigh up whether it's worth the time and effort needed to optimize your site search engine - make no mistake, it's going to take time and effort to get it working well.

However, taking Gerry's example (2,700 visitors who searched his site in 2005), if you look at the numbers in absolute terms that's a lot of potential customers who have shown themselves to be clearly interested in what he has to say/offer. Is it really worth ignoring this segment of his audience?

The Long Tail of Search

When it comes to optimizing your site search engine, it's also worth remembering that search has a very long tail. There will be numerous 'junk' phrases that you can safely ignore, while you focus on optimizing for the most common ones.

Thus, the actual number of search terms you need to focus on is likely to be a fairly small percentage of your total searches.

This helps you to keep your eye on your most important visitors (those who are searching for something related to what you are selling) and also keep the amount of work involved in maintaining your site search engine to a manageable level.

Parting Thoughts

As I mentioned before, at the end of the day it really comes down to resources and bang for your buck. If the time you'd spend on maintaining and optimizing for a site search engine is better spent elsewhere - say, on writing new content or marketing your site - then leave search alone.

If you do have the resources and can keep the ongoing work to a manageable level, a good site search is a great way to show your visitors you care enough about them to ensure they can find what they are looking for on your site in whatever way they prefer.

Further Reading

I talked about my own experience with our web site search engine in a previous post.

Posted on: May 15, 2006 | 1 Comment

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1 Comment Posted (Add Yours)

I use Zoom for my site(s), takes no time at all, no effort. Only caveat is you have to remember and run it again when you publish your site!

I've not used it but it looks like a good search engine, especially for the price. We use PicoSearch . This is a hosted solution. We're currently working on customizing its XML results feed so that we can better integrate it into multiple sites.

When I talked about effort, I was really referring to making sure that the right pages show up in your search results.

For example, I've made sure that if you do a search on our site for a variety of versions of the word 'jobs' that our careers page comes up first.

When you've got a lot of pages to try and rank appropriately, that can add up to a lot of tweaking!

I also go through our 'not found' logs and make sure that I add these terms to the metadata of the appropriate pages so that people can find what they are looking for even if they make typos.

That's where all the time and effort comes in.




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