The importance of quick, accurate search results cannot be underestimated, say market observers. A search tool on your website gives visitors the chance to find what they're looking for, much as they would with a popular search engine such as AltaVista, Google or HotBot. Moreover, when designed properly, a search function will keep them on your site longer, and it may allow you to learn about your visitors' tastes.
"Searching is one of the most important things consumers do online," says Matthew Berk, an analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix in New York City. "If you have a website with a lot of content-more than 100 pages-or if you are doing commerce on the web and you have a catalog of more than 100 products, it makes sense to have a search function on your website."
According to Berk, shoppers rely on search engines so much that customers immediately look for a search function when they visit a website. A recent Jupiter survey found that 34 percent of consumers said using a search tool is the main way they get information about products on a particular website.
Search functions, however, are not for every business. "Very small sites that can be seen in their entirety in 10 or 20 clicks probably don't need search tools," says Avi Rappoport, editor of SearchTools.com and principal consultant at Search Tools Consulting in Berkeley, California. However, she points out that the vast majority of sites would benefit from offering search capabilities. "Because of the volume of available information out there," she adds, "people will always need help finding what they want."
Know Your Options
Rappoport says it's common nowadays for individual sites to have their own search capabilities. As a result, there's a slew of services to help you quickly and easily enhance your site with such functions.
There are two basic types of website search tools: remote search services, where users pay a monthly fee for hosting, and off-the-shelf packages. Rappoport recommends that busy entrepreneurs use remote search services, which will crawl your site and store your information in a remote database. When someone enters a query on your site, the server application receives the query, retrieves and formats the results, then sends them back in HTML form with links directly to the pages on your site. "You can sign up for remote site search services and let them handle the technical configuration and server strain," she says.
Companies that offer popular remote search services that entrepreneurs use include FreeFind.com, Google.com, PicoSearchand Terra Lycos. These companies typically offer standard results pages, are easy to use and set up, and are relatively inexpensive-prices for basic services range anywhere from free to $189 per month. As a rule of thumb, companies offering free services require their company name be promoted somewhere on the customer's results page.
Especially when you feature a lot of information on your site, you need to provide customers with a thorough search tool that doesn't leave them frustrated. David Wyndham, co-owner of Conklin & de Decker, an Orleans, Massachusetts-based business that sells business and aviation-related books, CDs and software on its website and expects year-end sales of $1.6 million, uses PicoSearch. As the company added copies of articles and several years' worth of newsletters to the site, its own employees had trouble searching through the information. Wyndham, 39, asked, "What chance did a customer have?"
The company then decided to upgrade their tools to help their customers' searches run more smoothly. "When we added a shopping cart function, it only searched within the products we offer. But we realized we needed a search function that would let our customers search more than just our store."
Moving beyond your basic capabilities, search tools of the future just might provide valuable insight into customer behavior. Netpreneurs dream of the day when someone invents a teachable search engine that closely monitors a customer's every move, reviewing sets of search results and collecting data about the pages viewed, and then archiving that data and using it to guess what a customer is looking for.
Unfortunately, this technology is not yet available. So for now, it looks as though entrepreneurs will have to stick with traditional search tools. But it's never too late to start looking for endless possibilities.
Melissa Campanelli is a marketing and technology writer in Brooklyn, New York.