How Your Brand Can Avoid Common Site Search Failures

Common site search failures

Back in February — a lifetime ago, when sports were still a thing — we published a post outlining how only one brand website out of the 30 top brands that ran ads during the Super Bowl was able to directly answer a basic question via their own website search. (The winner? A surprise champion.)

 Given that more than 90% of all online experiences begin with search, that’s a big problem. “As the choice of first resort for many users and tasks, search is a defining element of the user experience,” write the authors of the book Search Patterns, a guide to search interface designs. “Unfortunately, it’s also the source of endless frustration. Search is the worst usability problem on the web.”

Daniel Newman, the director of product design at Design at NPR, the team behind National Public Radio, would likely agree. In 2019, he described his efforts to upgrade his Washington Post subscription to include home delivery. “I tried all sorts of keywords that I thought might lead me to my destination… ‘subscription’ or ‘account’ or ‘home delivery,” he writes, “and none of them gave me anything except results from the news.” 

That the paper provided a good experience for news search is great. But the subscriber experience? That one fell through the cracks. It’s simply not enough to list basic information on your home page, set up a never-again-reviewed FAQ page, offer a few links, and call it a day.

Diverse applications of site search shouldn’t be an afterthought for brands if they really want to be the ultimate source of truth about their business. Research backs this up, showing that customers are increasingly turning to businesses’ websites to find information. Indeed, from February to April, website visits from consumers seeking information about businesses increased by an average of 65%, and by as much as 376% in some industries. 

Your website is likely equipped to answer basic product questions asked most often, but are you able to offer accurate answers to more specific, natural language questions? If not, you’ll inevitably miss opportunities to engage users — and ultimately convert them — when they have important questions you didn’t see coming. This is the most common place brands fail at site search.

And that’s a problem, given that 68% of people won’t return to a site that provided a poor search experience. In fact, research by Gartner reveals that nearly 90% of companies compete on the basis of customer experience in order to win customer loyalty and advocacy — a battle that’s won by whichever brand can best service consumers’ changing needs and expectations. And the best way to do this? Meet them wherever they are in their journey with the information they need.

The importance of monitoring customer queries

Customers today increasingly rely on the natural language processing (NLP) capabilities of today’s “human” digital assistants. In other words, people now ask questions to devices the way they would another person. Quality search is fundamental to the customer experience, and it’s an experience that is becoming increasingly personalized and dependent on voice recognition and access. And an important note: Customers’ natural language phrases convert at more than two times the rate of single keywords.

People now expect you and your website to handle whatever they throw your way — be it an old-school keystroke question, or an offhand query spoken to Siri. As Newman notes, “Google changed user expectations of how search should work, and voice platforms like Alexa are changing the game again. It’s time for search on our apps and websites to step up to the plate.” 

 What he means you can’t just set up your website and call it a day. Just like how your newly purchased computer or phone starts becoming obsolete the moment you set it up, the information on your website is only as good as your most recent update. What was timely and relevant three months, three weeks, or even three days ago might well be out of date today. 

And that can have real consequences. If you’re not monitoring the queries and reviews coming your way — paying careful attention to the context of each search experience so you can learn about your customers and what they want from you — you risk losing them. You can only deliver a great site search experience if you understand what your customers are asking, and if you use that data to inform the custom content you develop. 

The good news is that queries and reviews provide a road map to identifying consumers’ needs. In fact, a summary of Louis Rosenfeld’s book Search Analytics for Your Site: Conversations with Your Customers highlights the fact that “Search queries are gold: they are the real data that show us exactly what users are searching for in their own words.” And there are tools to help you monitor those queries and respond to your customers’ specific needs (hint: Yext Answers). 

When you anticipate your customers’ needs, you’re able to create a better customer experience. That starts with search: Just as Newman concludes at the end of his subscription search journey, “when we imbue the search experience within our products with consideration and intentionality, we can make our users very happy.”

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