Search is often people’s first means of finding products on eCommerce websites, but search is also frequently a user’s last resort when she hasn’t found what she was looking for on a site.

So if you want to tank your conversion rate and frustrate your users, all you need to do is the following:

Drop the ball on autocomplete

Actually, do so at your own peril: A slow, clunky or non-existent autocomplete kills conversions before your users even see a search results page.

If search is many users’ first impression of an eCommerce property, autocomplete is users’ first impression of a site’s search experience. Over the last decade, Google has trained online shoppers to expect instant, highly relevant search suggestions after typing just a single character.

But great autocomplete isn’t easy to get right. Sites may use primitive homegrown solutions, or rely on their legacy search vendor whose autocomplete offering isn’t a primary focus. Spell correction, keyword stemming and results optimization are incredibly difficult when a system needs to send responses in a fraction of a second.

What does this mean? Search experience on most eCommerce sites is at its worst where it matters the most: At the very beginning of your user’s interaction with the searchbox. If your autocomplete falls behind your search system’s functionality, you’re killing conversions before users ever see your search result pages.

The autocomplete in this Alexa 1,000 retailer struggles. Searches for 'Yves' get good results... until users add a space to their search. And users looking for 'Bare Minerals' makeup are out of look unless they think to remove the space.
The autocomplete in this Alexa 1,000 retailer is a poor introduction for users. Searches for ‘Yves’ get good results… until users add a space to their search. And users looking for ‘Bare Minerals’ makeup are out of luck unless they think to remove the space.

Assume your users are perfect spellers

No really, don’t assume your users are perfect spellers!

A discussion of the many ways to frustrate your users with search wouldn’t be complete without addressing misspellings. That may sound easy, but it’s harder than it sounds. You’ll need to return results based on how a word sounds (not just how it’s spelled) and return good results when users press (or tap) the wrong letter accidentally, when they switch or entirely omit characters, and when spaces are left out or added where they shouldn’t be.

Unfortunately, many off-the-shelf systems don’t have the sophistication to catch all of these cases, and Solr, ElasticSearch and other search engines can leave major blindspots in this area if not implemented correctly. And even if your search pages have perfect typo-tolerance, you still have a golden opportunity to frustrate your users with poor spell correction…

While your search result pages may provide decent spell correction for some of the cases above, chances are your autocomplete won’t catch them. Most site search services are designed to serve search result pages in seconds; autocomplete results that need to be returned within tens of milliseconds are often second-rate.

This globally-recognized internet retailer provides good results when the user types the "Canon 50mm f1/.8." But the autocomplete shows no results if the user omits the slash.
This electronics retailer has a very sophisticated search experience, providing great results when our user types “Canon 50mm f/1.8.” But autocomplete experience (and conversions) suffer when the user makes the common mistake of omitting the slash.

Limit your search to products

Instead, anticipate your customers’ needs by taking a holistic view of search in the customer journey.

The focus of product managers at eCommerce properties (and brand properties with a significant eCommerce play) is understandably on the products themselves. But a customer journey consists of more than a collection of product detail pages.

Online shoppers today expect search to return pages key to their journey: Retail locations, return policies and customer service numbers.

Failing to take a holistic view of search in customer journeys can turn off your users, decrease customer satisfaction and increase support costs.

autocomplete fails to return the store locator
A major outdoor apparel brand returns chopsticks, pants and no results when our user searches for “store locations,” “store locator” and “locations,” respectively. Our user is unhappy.

We’re here to help

This tongue-in-cheek guide is a roadmap of hard-won learnings from our work building world-class autocomplete & search experiences for our clients.

Think your search experience could use some work? Reach out for a free consultation with our search engineers.