As marketers wrap up their strategies for this holiday season, search engine optimization (SEO) is obviously at the top of their to-do lists.
But site search, Swiftype co-founder and CEO Matt Riley told me, is a different thing. So we pinged him for a few pointers.
“They are totally different universes,” he said, with “different use cases.” His company, one of a variety of providers and methods for site search, handles this function for several hundred thousand desktop/mobile sites and apps, including those of Qualcomm, Dr. Pepper and SurveyMonkey.
In the world of web-wide search, Google is obviously the 600-pound gorilla. But it runs according to a changing, mysterious algorithm that addresses the entire world of online.
It is also in a continual battle with those who try to game their system. “Google is actively competing with SEO optimization,” Riley said. “You’re in an arms race.”
A site search engine, on the other hand, is just about your site. If, say, you’re a site that sells different kinds of locks, Google might think it’s spammy to feature your Summer Sale of padlocks at the top of results. But that’s what your site needs.
Most site search providers or methods allow for tweaking the results, such as the way it can be done by the dashboard provided with Swiftype. For example, you might want to put those on-sale Yale combination locks first in results for a “locks for lockers” search.
Here’s a screen shot of partial search results from one of Swiftype’s clients, UPS Battery Center, with the first row providing prime real estate for what the seller wants to move:
Riley noted that the site search version of Google is essentially the same “same global search, but filtered by domain.” In other words, it’s the same as typing “sitename: search term” into Google’s search field. Same algorithm, same approach, different target.
Another difference: Site searching isn’t just searching. It’s become a kind of navigation, since many visitors don’t bother using your carefully designed and elegantly constructed menus. Instead, they go right to your search engine. According to marketing research firm eConsultancy, for instance, up to 30 percent of visitors to e-commerce sites use the site search box.
Essentially, Riley pointed out, a site search box is “your infinite navigational panel.”
That means that the results are not simply door-openers, as with the web-wide Google, but they can serve as the main method for getting around your site.
So the site search results need to act, at times, as a menu might. A visitor, for instance, could be looking to get a complete listing of a product category via search — that is, the search results would best show the entire product section, just as a menu might.
But even searches and misses can have value for the site owner, since search queries are a great indicator of visitor intent. They can tell you what people want to find, and what they think your brand is about. Riley noted that visitors could be searching in vain for your return policy, while you’ve been focused on your product catalog.
If users are continually looking for a category of products or results, the site might consider featuring that category in the navigation and possibly even calling it out in the body of the home page.
The targeted or even serendipitous results from site searching can land a potential buyer right where they want to be. There are reports that sales conversion rates for visitors who use site search can be as much as 50 percent higher than for visitors who don’t search. In Swiftype’s case study on client BulbAmerica, the conversion rate of visitors who searched was 4.6 times higher than that of non-searchers.
As for site search strategies for desktop versus mobile sites, Riley said the differences are sometimes “counterintuitive.”
“You’d think [mobile users would] do shorter searches,” he said. “But users do a little longer [search queries] than is typical, so they don’t have to click around” afterwards in the results.
“On mobile, they’re more willing to type in the exact query,” he said.
All the more reason, he said, to make the mobile search field bigger, since it often employed as the mobile user’s free-form navigational tool.