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Optimize eCommerce On-site Search for Higher Conversions

Think you’re saving money by deferring improvements to search on your eCommerce site? You might want to think again. While it’s been found that on average 5-15% of visitors to an eCommerce site use on-site search, that 15% of traffic can account for 45% of your revenue. 

“on average 5-15% of visitors to an eCommerce site use on-site search, that 15% of traffic can account for 45% of your revenue”

How is this possible? Shoppers who use on-site search typically know what they want and therefore are further along the buyer journey and are more likely to convert. 

More people are shopping online and on mobile today than ever before. And, due to the pandemic, they are more willing to purchase items online that they previously bought in stores. In fact, during pandemic lockdowns, 84% of consumers across the globe shopped online. While these trends present a potential golden opportunity for brands, it also means the eCommerce space has become a lot more competitive. Consumers have high expectations for streamlined product discovery and intuitive shopping experiences. If they can’t find what they want quickly, they’ll go elsewhere. 

While site search gets a bad rap because it often doesn’t work well, that doesn’t mean your brand’s on-site search should be lousy. In fact, good eCommerce site search can be a competitive advantage. What does it take to make great eCommerce search experiences a reality? To glean some best practices on how to optimize on-site search, we talked to our friends at eCommerce search and merchandising platform Searchspring, which integrates well with Shopify Plus.

See the signs: How to know if your eCommerce search needs help

Many out-of-the-box eCommerce site search solutions are limited. How do you know if the search functionality you currently have needs an upgrade? Following are some important “red flags” to investigate. 

  • Too few or too many searchable data fields: Ideally you want multiple data points to be searchable – not just the product name. This data could include certain product information, specs, and tags. However, you generally don’t want all data to be searchable – it all depends on your customer base and the attributes that are important to them. Start by analyzing your shopper behavior data and customize the search experience accordingly. 
  • Inventory not taken into consideration: It’s disappointing when you find what you’re looking for, only to have it be sold out. Search functionality with the ability to leverage inventory data avoids this by showing consumers products that are available to purchase.  
  •  No filters on the search results page: Consumers can feel frustrated when their search query results in too many results and they have to try to come up with a more specific query or figure out “what else to call it.” Enabling consumers to refine their original search using filters on the search results page provides a much better, more intuitive experience. 
  • No autocomplete: Beyond helping to avoid misspellings and saving mobile users from typing, autocomplete also helps suggest better search terms and aids in product discovery. Consumers ultimately get more relevant search results. That said, autocomplete does make for a better mobile experience, and consumers like it – eCommerce UX research firm Baymard Institute reports that 78% of consumers used autocomplete query suggestions in mobile testing, but only 55% of mobile sites provide useful autocomplete functionality. 
  • Can’t apply multiple rules for merchandising: Native search solutions typically don’t allow you to set up rules for merchandising, such as “elevate new products that are less than 30 days old AND best-selling.”  

Help a customer out: Key optimizations for better eCommerce search UX

For many eCommerce brands, on-site search optimization isn’t a priority. Brands often feel the effort it will take to optimize won’t justify the return. While that may have been the case in the past when eCommerce was less competitive, brands can no longer afford to put search optimization on the back burner. Following are some key areas to focus optimization efforts for more user-friendly, better-performing eCommerce site search.

Fix your data

Good search relies on clean, structured data. Without good data, search doesn’t work well and consumers won’t be able to find what they’re looking for or be able to easily compare items. In fact, Baymard reports that the top two product data issues that directly cause abandonment are poorly structured product data and incorrect tagging. Main problems include improperly structured or unstructured data, inconsistent product naming conventions, missing data, inconsistent product information/specs, and incorrect use of product attribute tagging. 

Your top priority: get your product data in order! Regularly review your data and flag it for issues, such as whether top search terms are returning the right products. Also put processes in place for adding new product data (including product attributes like color, style, and size) in a structured, consistent way. For instance, many clients opt to sync product data to Shopify Plus from their enterprise resource planning software (ERP) using a bridge or IPaaS solution. For customers with a large catalog, it’s a good idea to use product information management software (PIM) to manage syncing product data to Shopify Plus. A PIM can be very effective in cleaning, expanding, and normalizing data to consistently map to the information that customers need for search and product pages. As an added bonus, some PIMs have a validation stage before data is pushed to Shopify Plus, which helps ensure that you’ve included all relevant data when adding or updating a product.

Normalizing and cleaning your data is never fun, but it's critical for SEO as well as customer experience. For example, instead of having filters for every color green, you offer (e.g., forest green, lime green, etc.),  normalize all those greens into a standard green tag. Then, customers only have to click once to see all the products in green. 

Analyze your search data

You can learn a lot about how to optimize search by analyzing your data to see how search is performing. To start, look at what percentage of your site traffic uses on-site search and how much revenue it generates. In addition to conversions, look at the average exit rate from on-site search. Does it seem high? If so, it’s a red flag to check if consumers are seeing search results that aren’t relevant to them. Also, identifying the most popular search terms consumers are using can give you great information about how to optimize your filters and product tags to support better search results. 

Eliminate “zero results” search returns

It’s a missed opportunity when a consumer gets a “no results found” return on a search. You’re practically booting them off your site. Instead, search results that don’t match should recommend similar or alternative products and/or alternative search query examples for the consumer to consider. Baymard reports that 60% of mobile eCommerce sites fail to do this. In addition, they found that 46% of eCommerce sites, in general, have issues returning results for “thematic” searches; i.e., when a consumer types in a descriptive phrase (“cold weather sleeping bag”) versus a product name. To optimize, set up synonyms and redirects to show results and offer alternative search query phrases even if you don’t have that specific product. 


Merchandize search results

After you’ve optimized your eCommerce site search to return relevant results, you can take search to the next level by integrating merchandising strategies on the results pages – i.e., highlighting certain products and/or displaying certain products together. This will ensure the right products are displayed above the fold and can also help move inventory or increase average order value through cross-selling. 

Design matters: Search UI dos and don’ts

In addition to optimizing on your backend, it’s important to also analyze how consumers are interacting with your eCommerce site search and test improvements to the UI. Following is some low-hanging fruit:

  1. Make the search bar easy to find: Make sure the search bar isn’t hidden by another design element and that it expands by default on mobile and desktop. Also, making the search bar contrast with the site’s background color can help consumers find it faster. 
  2. Optimize filtering: You want to offer just enough filters to make them useful – not too few or too many. Make them easy to see on the page and easy to understand. Checkboxes make it easy for the consumer to see and keep track of what filters they’ve selected. 
  3. Incorporate badging: Use badging to visually highlight products on search results pages, such as sale, new, our picks – to help lead consumers to a more desirable product. 
  4. Use exploding variants: Depending on what you’re selling, you may want to show the same product in multiple variations (e.g., color) in the search results so that the consumer can quickly understand there are multiple versions available.  


Get smart about search

While some of these eCommerce site search optimizations can be done manually with your site’s native search, it can become unmanageable if you have a large product catalog or if you frequently add new products. You need the right tools, like intelligent search. This can give you more control over what data is leveraged in search -- but most importantly, it will help you do a better job interpreting shopper intent of search terms in order to deliver more relevant results and increase overall conversions. Want to talk more about on-site search optimization and Shopify PlusContact us.