"Search and split." That's what most visitors do when they can't find what they are looking for on a Web site.
Though most sites are designed for "stickiness," there's no better way to lose the grip on visitors than by making it difficult for them to find what they want. Yet far too few companies place an emphasis on the effectiveness of their site's search engine.
A recent study conducted by the Georgia Institute of Technology indicates that almost 70% of Web users utilize site search engines. Ideally, search engines should be extremely easy to navigate - as simple as walking up to a bank teller and asking for information.
Most informational Web sites do not know they have a problem. Little testing is done to evaluate the effectiveness of information presentation. Customers or visitors will rarely tell you when they can't find information.
Unlike the usual visitor, most Web masters and information technology professionals are far too sophisticated when it comes to search techniques and don't think like the common person. Also, because they built the Web site, they know exactly where to find things.
A basic understanding of what is important in a search engine will vastly improve the functionality and ease of use of a site in a cost-effective way. Some factors to consider are:
Absence of gobbledygook. Does your search engine return results that include relevance percentages, links that have been dead for months, and other meaningless terminology? It should not. What good does a 73% return on "mortgage rates" do for the average bank site user? Absolutely nothing.
The best search results are ordered in relevance minus the useless symbols, numbers and words. One search engine, MondoSearch, is particularly effective in this area and provides clean, non-jargon search results.
Fully categorized search results. It is critical that a search engine present results in sensible groups and logical categories based on the specific structure of your Web site.
This enables your visitors to receive information faster than sorting through irrelevant topics.
For example, if a visitor inputs "loans," the best answer depends on a number of factors. Is the person looking for a home equity loan, small business loan, or a consumer loan? Do they want to apply for a loan, to make a loan payment, or to find out interest rate information? Obviously, there is no way to discern these elements through the term "loans." Creating more specific categories provides segmented search results, making it easy for visitors to find their information quickly and efficiently.
Description, description, and more description. Search engine users tend to assume their results will include all of the Web site's data. Actually, only high-end search engines include descriptions in their search results as well as all the pages where the search words are located.
Language recognition. A business is global, customers are multinational, and so is the site content information. English speaking visitors don't want to sort through documents, find one that is relevant and then find out that it is in French.
Embrace diversity and choose a search engine that offers multiple-language recognition. Each of the major search engine companies differs in the languages they support.
Multimedia recognition. As band width expands, multimedia content on Web sites will grow as well. Search engines need to conform with convergence and indicate whether a citation is text, pictures, video, audio, or whatever new formats spring to life.
Search assistance features. Quality site-search tools share one underlying feature: the ability to allow the user to tweak his or her search query before and after the original requests.
To outsource or not to outsource. A number of search engine companies offer their information retrieval solutions through an outsourcing option. The benefits are clear: it isn't necessary to purchase the server, and the information technology staff won't need to dedicate significant time or energy towards maintaining it. Set it and forget it. However, if a site is relatively small, a more cost-efficient in-house solution might be appropriate.
Scalability. There has never been a banking Web site that has decreased in size and functionality. Marketing materials, online banking facilities, partnership agreements, investor news, service information, loan applications, and much more will inevitably be added to a Web site over time. Deploying a search engine that cannot scale will end up costing dearly on the back end.
Maintenance. Some search engines such as the "free" Microsoft Index Server require significant programming time, which adds significantly to the cost of ownership. Selection criteria should take into consideration the cost to get the engine up and running and the time it takes to maintain it. MondoSearch, Atomz, SearchButton, and Google offer hosting and other solutions that cost less to maintain.
Indexing mixed environments and multiple-host sites. Most sites today are a mix of standard hyper-text markup-language pages, and pages that are dynamically generated from scripts and databases. However, many search engines have a limited capability of indexing dynamically generated pages. Another rare feature is the ability to index pages across multiple hosts and sites.
Ability to search frames. Many Web sites utilize frame technology to ease navigation and to speed loading times. Unfortunately, most site search engines are not capable of searching multiple frames within a site, leaving a wealth of information inaccessible.
Even if you have provided "no frames" tags, most site search engines will not produce the full frame-set as intended but will only show the single frame that matched your query.
If visitors are not able to locate their desired information within a few clicks, they will disappear. Implementing a poorly performing search tool can actually drive away visitors, no matter how impressive the opening Flash presentation is.
Mr. Linnell is president of Liquid Design Group, a New York design agency that specializes in Internet and intranet development, multimedia, and broadcast animation.