On-site search is more than a small box in the corner

How to improve the UX of on-site search and help your users find what they are looking for

|Laura Heine

A powerful and user-friendly on-site search can make all the difference for your users. Learn how to make your search functionality an outstanding experience.

Users want to find information fast. If the page navigation is insufficient, they quickly resort to the search functionality. Nowadays, users expect that an on-site search is easy to use, provides flexible options, and delivers specific and useful results. But bringing your on-site search to the next level is not straightforward, because there are many factors that contribute to the overall solution, such as your search engine, content, metadata and your information architecture.   

Before starting any improvement attempts, you will want to know what exactly needs to be done - and even if search is the problem. We can help with a comprehensive UX Audit.

Let's connect and talk about UX audits!

How on-site search affects user experience

Site structure, navigation, forms, and user flows are essential parts to get right - but  UX Design should never neglect on-site search. Search is the feature that users will fall back to if they want to find particular information fast, or if they feel that they might miss some of the information when navigating through the site.

In other words, your on-site search is your users’ safety net and fast lane.

When your site offers a lot of information to sift through, on-site search is a convenient shortcut to the information your users seek to discover. Without an on-site search, users might not find the desired information at all. After clicking through many links, they might decide to leave your site and look elsewhere, even if the desired information or action is only one further click away. 

On-site search also trumps 3rd-party search engines. Some information may be available for logged-in users only, and some information may be excluded from being indexed by search engines. Only an on-site search can reveal that information to your users.

Does your on-site search have a problem?

If users complain about site usability, listen closely. Often, the complaints point to an issue with your search. If users say they cannot find specific information, the reason could be poor navigation, but it can also point to a problem with the on-site search. If you’re getting a lot of support requests where the information is readily available on your site, chances are the on-site search is not fit-for-purpose.

Users might also directly report problems with your on-site search. These can range from basic things like a search that is not visible or not easy to find, to more complex problems such as insufficient filter types, too many irrelevant results, or the lack of preview images in the results. Problems like these are easy to describe but can be challenging to fix. You might need to re-configure the search engine or even restructure the site content. (The latter is less likely if you have built a solid information architecture right from the start.) Don’t let this keep you from adding those improvements fast. Once users point you to a problem, they expect a quick resolution.

But you don’t have to wait for your users to complain. Get proactive and scan your on-site search for ways to improve.

Put your on-site search to the test

An on-site search experience can fail at multiple levels. You can start with a simple usability test to find areas to improve and do a technical search analysis later to uncover deeper problems.

Do a usability test

A basic review of search usability can lead to immediate improvements.

Better search options

Your on-site search might need better options for filtering or sorting. Review your users’ needs as well as your business requirements—both sides have an impact on the required search options.

Search result appearance

On-site search can display search results in many different ways. Ensure the results contain enough information for the users to determine if they want to drill down on the result. At the same time, avoid information overload. 

Dig deeper

Your review can also reveal more complex problems that affect search accuracy. Check for any of the following:

  • Is the on-site search omitting results?
  • Do the search results contain too many irrelevant entries?
  • Does sorting by relevance work? For example, specific pages that match search criteria should rank higher than pillar pages. 
  • Can the search engine handle synonyms, alternate spellings, or misspellings?
  • Do preview images display?

In these cases, a technical search analysis can identify the causes behind those issues, such as

  • An incomplete or misconfigured search index
  • Metadata that has not been indexed
  • A misconfigured proximity search
  • Broken image links in the search index

The steps for analyzing and resolving on-site search problems depend on the search engine. If you use Solr, read our insights and tips for improving Solr search relevance. 

Get to know your on-site search

On-site search engines are more capable than ever. The flip side is increased complexity in setting up, maintaining, and tuning these engines.

If your on-site search is more confusing than helpful, b13 can help you identify possible deficiencies of your on-site search through a UX audit.

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