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What's the best on-site search solution for my eCommerce website?

April 9 2020

When someone visits an eCommerce website to learn more about the products or services on offer, they begin their investigation in one of two ways:

  1. They browse the top-level category navigation looking for the relevant service page
  2. They submit a query directly to the on-site search tool

An estimated 30% of internet users utilise on-site search tools while browsing the net. The result is that site search has become increasingly important to the user experience — especially for eCommerce sites.

If a user can’t find the products, services, or answers they’re looking for, they’ll take their business elsewhere. Imagine shopping on Amazon without search functionality.

Site search is equally beneficial from the proprietor’s perspective. On-site search functionality has been shown to reduce bounce rates, improve average time on site, increase average number of pages per session, and boost conversion rates among customers.

Poorly optimised site search functionality can have a seriously detrimental impact on an eCommerce site’s bottom line. So, instead of asking yourself “should I invest in site search?”, focus your efforts on finding the optimal on-site search solution for your website.

In this article, we highlight four possible solutions for eCommerce sites looking to improve site search functionality on their website.

Design a frictionless shopping experience for your users. Download our 'Search  and Navigation UX Design Guide'.

User behaviour

Before we begin, there’s one crucial aspect of modern site search that must be taken into consideration: user behaviour.

The average visitor to an eCommerce site falls into one of three distinctive categories:

  1. Those who know exactly what they want to find on your site
  2. Those that have tried and failed to find a specific product using your top-level category navigation, and have thus decided to utilise your on-site search tool
  3. Those who aren’t 100% sure what they’re looking for and have visited your site looking for inspiration

However, whether you specialise in selling retro games consoles or the latest in women’s fashion, there will inevitably be differences between the way customers search for products and the way you’d like them to.

The job of your search tool is to interpret this behaviour — the specific search terms they use to locate a product and the process that leads them to making a purchase — and present them with a list of relevant results.

Yet, for search tools that are incapable of understanding or learning from user behaviour, this poses several difficulties for your search algorithm: particularly in the world of eCommerce where different words can be used to describe a single product. For example, trainers and sneakers or dresses and gowns. Similarly, homonyms (two or more words that have the same spelling or pronunciation, but different meanings) make it even trickier for your search tool to accurately categorise the results.

You must take these complexities into account when investigating potential site search solutions.

4 site search solutions you should consider for your eCommerce site

In-built search

Most modern content management systems (CMS) and eCommerce platforms come with search functionality built directly into the system. Usually, this will form part of your subscription.

An in-built solution will feature direct text matching functionality that’s capable of identifying text within page names, body copy, product names, and product meta data. Results tend not to be ordered in the most efficient way. But, if your product catalogue numbers in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands, you can get around this limitation by guiding users and web crawlers to manually-curated pages.

The biggest drawback in the majority of cases will be the lack of personalisation. The result of limited or altogether absent machine learning capabilities, this further compromises the accuracy of the user’s search results.

Off-the-shelf, in-built site search solutions aren’t overly sophisticated. However, such tools offer a useful jumping off point for smaller eCommerce sites.

Plugins, modules, and widgets

Reinforcing your content management system or eCommerce platform with a separate site search module, plugin, or widget may offer a viable alternative to an in-built solution.

The advantage of this model over an API solution or custom build (more on these later) is that it tends to be cheaper, making it a more attractive proposition for small-medium-sized eCommerce sites. More importantly, with features such as auto-correct and spell-check, the best plugins, modules, and widgets will help guide customers towards relevant products. eCommerce sites built on WordPress, for instance, have a veritable smorgasbord of suitable candidates to choose from.

Larger sites might find such a solution a bit too restrictive. Other common complaints levelled against site search widgets et al is that they tend to focus on attractive UIs at the expense of usability. While any CMS or eCommerce platform that’s undergone a significant amount of customisation may also be incompatible with an out-of-the-box plugin or module.

Build your own site search engine

Rather than relying on a pre-built, out-of-the-box solution, those who possess sufficient technical skill might consider building their own bespoke site search tool using open source software.

This tends to be more cost-effective and flexible, offering greater scalability: characteristics that are particularly important for large eCommerce sites or those that anticipate substantial growth in the near future.

What’s more, they provide access to valuable features that aren’t readily available in the majority of plugins, modules, widgets, and in-built solutions. Synonym functionality, stemming, and pluralisation, to name but three.

When contemplating an open source solution, remember that unlike off-the-shelf search tools, you will be directly responsible for installation, hosting, maintenance, performance, and service development throughout its lifetime. As a result, more than one full-time employee might be required to keep your search tool running smoothly, adding to the overall cost.

Tuning for relevance across multiple queries can also prove particularly challenging. Though simple in theory, establishing rules that take into account differences in product data, variations in inventory, user individuality, seasonality, trends, and the complexities of language is often a time-consuming and complicated process.


The fourth and final option is to invest in a software as a service (SaaS) solution.

If your eCommerce site is currently enjoying a period of sustained growth (illustrated by a substantial expansion in your product range), chances are you’ll experience additional challenges when it comes to preserving the quality of your on-site navigation and search. A SaaS solution, integrated via an API, is your best bet when it comes to meeting these challenges head on.

These services tend to have a higher price tag than the other solutions covered in this article. They also require integration development. Even so, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

API SaaS solutions can be integrated seamlessly into your site, configured to adopt the look and feel of your brand. Moreover, the best-in-class solutions are capable of processing long-tail keywords and can learn from past search queries, interactions, and purchases. This enables you to personalise your search results and optimise the resulting data to extract actionable insights, which can then be leveraged to further streamline your search.

The efficacy of the Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Personalisation algorithms that underpin these tools varies enormously from vendor to vendor. So, when investigating a suitable SaaS solution, bear in mind that few companies deploy this technology in a way that positively impacts conversion rates. Ask for a demonstration before investing in a specific solution to understand exactly how it will work with your product data set.

Finding the optimal site search solution

The ability to quickly and accurately locate products is essential to the success of any eCommerce business. Put simply, if the customer can’t find it, they’ll assume you don’t sell it.

Nevertheless, when evaluating the different site search tools available to you, consider the total cost of ownership, including how much in-house development and management will be required to get the most out of your chosen solution — measured against potential return on investment.

By taking into account both the financial implications and the functionality you require from your on-site search tool, you’ll gain a clear idea which solution is the right one for you.Download our 'Site Search and Navigation UX Design Guide'


eCommerce Site-Search
Search & Navigation

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