There are few shoppers as eager to buy as those that use your search bar. Web visitors that enter your site with a specific product or even category in mind are high-intent, mission-oriented, and often at the peak of inspiration.
Nearly two-thirds of shoppers (64%) use site search in the “I-want-to-buy moment,” while 43% of all eCommerce browsers go directly to the search bar. When visitors have a good search bar experience — meaning, their queries are instantly met with relevant results that match their style and intentions — online shoppers are 2-3x more likely to convert.
Poor eCommerce Site Search Drives Away Ready-to-Buy Shoppers
But just as a good search experience equals happy customers and high conversion, the inverse of this equation is also true. And unfortunately, poor search bar experiences are still a pervasive issue for online brands and retailers.
According to Forrester research, 68% of visitors who encounter disappointing and frustrating search experiences churn. To me, the biggest shame of all is that, according to BigCommerce, an astounding 72% of sites fail to live up to consumers’ expectations for a positive search experience.
By combining advanced technology with some tried and true search strategies, brands and retailers can dramatically improve their search capabilities while creating delightful, high-converting experiences along the way.
A quick note before we dive in…
Before we can truly address the UX and UI elements of on-site search for eCommerce brands, it’s important to understand that effective search is dependant on three key factors:
- Robust, accurate, and efficient product tags and metadata infrastructure
- Highly relevant results that are quick to load
- Personalization and merchandising rules that ensure shoppers are seeing the right products in the right order at the right time
With these elements in place — we’ll elaborate on these throughout this post — you can feel confident that you have the foundation for a better eCommerce site search experience.
When it comes to the customer-facing aspects of search, each brand must decide what practices to implement and how based on their specific audience demographics. While some practices suit certain customers’ preferences and shopping behaviors, the same practices might harm the experience for others.
For example, young shoppers who are browsing for clothes on low-cost eCommerce sites could benefit from suggestions with images that appear below the search bar as they type. These recommendations can provide great inspiration and nudge shoppers to add more items to their baskets. On the other hand, these tactics will have less of an impact on shoppers for luxury items, where each product has a much higher price point and impulse purchases are rare. Instead, too much clutter can distract the shopper from purchasing the item they’re seeking.
Before you implement any change, be sure to ask yourself how it will impact the experience of your target customers.
Now, let’s get to the fun stuff.
Tooltips, Suggestions, & Search Prompts
Offer clear prompts that add value, not friction.
1. Offer tooltips for new visitors. This is a great example of a best practice that can dramatically benefit some demographics while impairing the experience of others. For the best outcomes, you first need to know who the user is. For a first-time site visitor, a tooltip that highlights the search bar and provides helpful tips can encourage greater engagement and create a more satisfying experience. But for return visitors, seeing this message can feel annoying or distracting.
2. Provide sample queries with discretion. Again, sample queries and text can be helpful to some audiences and distracting to others. Your decision on whether to provide them should be based on factors such as your shoppers’ age and the company’s price point. If you are a retailer that sells affordable fashion, sample queries that offer popular product categories can be an effective way of introducing them to more pages. But for an expensive handbag designer, offering the same suggestions can lead a high-intent shopper away from the product they had set out to buy.
3. When offering suggestions, go for quality over quantity. If you decide to offer suggestions that populate as a user types in a search query, don’t provide more than three to five options. Anything more than that can be confusing or steer the user too far away from their original intent.
4. Provide thumbnail images for some extra inspiration. When suggestions appear, shoppers will be more inclined to click if they see an image that piques their interest. For this, you’ll want to include pictures of products that are both relevant to the user’s search, and particularly popular among shoppers.
5. Open search in a new modal to steer shoppers toward popular searches. If you’ve determined that offering suggested searches is an important tool for your site, it’s often worth bringing a visitor to a separate search page to view the suggestions. This helps them focus on the act of searching, while creating much more real estate to offer suggestions and images. If you click the search bar on recycled fashion retailer White Rose, you’ll be directed to such a page.
If you start typing a search term, for example, “jean jacket,” you’ll see a list of relevant results with product names, images, and prices. Now, users who spot a single item they like can go directly to the PDP, shortening their journey and bringing them one step closer to check out. If they don’t find a product they like from this short list, they can simply choose “See all results” for the full list of search results.
Smarter Text Search
Give your search the power of human understanding.
6. Augment product metadata to improve accuracy. Choose a search solution that enriches your product tags with detailed visual attributes and synonyms, so you can easily understand and provide relevant results even when keywords stray from your product descriptions. This can even be done automatically using visual AI to identify and tag dozens of attributes in any given product photo, building a more robust foundation for search.
7. Choose a search solution designed to understand intuitive queries. Advanced eCommerce search solutions will use NLP to understand the context of queries and the relationship between words. This way, if a shopper searches for a “shirt dress” or “red dressy heels,” for example, it will be able to understand that they’re looking for a dress not a button-down top, and formal shoes rather than a red dress.
Augmented search is an emerging technology that combines NLP with visual AI, allowing it to intuit shoppers’ intentions with human-like understanding. With this capability, you can provide hyper-relevant results and an unparalleled experience. According to our findings, eCommerce sites that provide augmented search can increase their conversion rate up to 48% higher than average.
Create inspirational and engaging customer experiences that transcend language.
8. Offer visual search capabilities. Combining visual search with augmented search positions you to offer the most engaging, accurate, and delightful eCommerce site search experience. Visual search, which is also powered by visual AI, allows users to identify the items they’re seeking by uploading a photo. The visual search engine then analyzes the image, identifies and interprets each object in view, and then provides all of the relevant products within your inventory.
With visual search, it doesn’t matter if a shopper has no idea what “empire waist,” “bodycon” or “ruched fabric” is. If they want a product with those features, they can simply upload a photo — from their camera roll, social media, or online — to find visually similar items that meet their criteria.
9. Make the visual search icon visible. Today, shoppers increasingly want visual search capabilities. More than half of young shoppers (62%) prefer visual search over any other technologies to enhance their online shopping experience. If you add this capability to your site, make sure it’s clear to your visitors that they can use it. I recommend placing the visual search icon either within your search bar or directly beside it, so even if a visitor isn’t familiar with the tool, they can deduce what it does with just a glance.
10. Give your visual search some real estate. Upon clicking the visual search icon, many brands open their visual search tool in a new modal alongside an image gallery that is designed to provide some inspiration. While many shoppers will eagerly use the tool to locate, say, that blue silk skirt they saw their favorite Instagram influencer wearing, others will click on the icon out of curiosity, even if they don’t have a specific image handy. Providing the space to make both options possible is ideal for visual search. This is also a great place to showcase user-generated content to add a layer of social proof to your inspiration gallery.
In the example below, Rinascimento places the button to upload an image to the visual search tool on the left, and a carefully curated gallery of inspiring items on the right.
Personalization & Merchandising
Surface the most relevant results for each shopper.
11. Lead with personalized results. Often, brands and retailers neglect personalizing search results because it’s the one time where shoppers explicitly share what they’re looking for. However, every shopper searching for a leather couch has a unique shape, color, price point, and style that they prefer. Sorting results in accordance with each shopper’s behavior and the products they interact with in a given session will enable you to automatically place the most relevant results for that shopper up top, ensuring they find exactly what they’re looking for, instantly. You can also add smart merchandising rules to the mix to prioritize results not just based on personalization, but also according to other factors like stock availability or trending items.
12. Provide robust filters. In addition to personalizing results, you want to give shoppers as much agency as possible to sort through results and quickly find what they want. Go beyond enabling sorting by price or best-sellers, and provide filters for a variety of attributes, like size, color, fabric, length, sleeve type, and more. A faceted search experience gives your shoppers control to sort by the criteria that matter most to them.
Mobile eCommerce Site Search
Make search simple on mobile.
13. Prioritize search visibility on smaller screens. Mobile devices like smartphones and tablets should be just as easy for shoppers to use as their computers. While there is obviously less real estate to work with on mobile devices, it’s equally important that your search bar is easy to find. I suggest sticking with the standard mobile search bar icon to avoid navigation confusion and frustration. When the search field appears on the screen, make sure it is large enough to easily type into.
14. Adjust your search prompts for mobile. If on desktop your search bar automatically suggests search queries or categories below the search bar, consider how this will look on mobile. Likely, a drop-down menu will take up most, if not all, of the screen. This isn’t inherently bad, but it could distract your shoppers from the query they were about to input. In this case, the decision of whether to offer sample search queries depends on both your target audience, as well as your mobile site or app design.
Make Your eCommerce Site Search Experience Work for You
Many eCommerce blogs and websites offer prescriptive tips and steps for achieving out-of-this-world site search results. While many of these seem compelling, unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. One of the most important things I hope you take away from this post is that every decision about your search strategy should call back to the same question: Will this change benefit my target audience?
With this question in mind, you’ll be prepared to develop the right approach to search — one that will help foster an efficient, inspiring, and engaging experience that matches shoppers with the items they’re looking for and boosts conversion.