Searching for search

edWilsonPic_HeadAndShoulders_2_InchDo you ever think about search engines? Certainly the Bing search engine from Microsoft has made some tremendous improvements in the past year … and is in fact being updated with a Fall refresh. However, for all the advances in search technology, there are still problems – if you do not know what you are searching for, or at least if you cannot put into words what you are searching for, the search will fail.

This was recently brought home to me when I tried to purchase the little metal clips that are used to attach a wooden table top to its apron. I had spent the last several weeks making a table for my mother in-law and was finally ready to attach the table top to the rest of the table. The problem is I only had enough clips for one table … and I am also finishing up a cherry table. I decided to order some new clips from an online woodworking store (I prefer to avoid physical stores this time of the year).

After four hours on line I finally located the things … not by searching … after about three hours I gave up searching, and began to browse the site – the items were located in a section called Tables / assembly. In four hours, I could have driven to a physical store, stood in line for an hour, and still had time to spare. The wild card in that scenario however, is does the store have what I need in stock. Calling is no good this time of year … so I preferred to stay with my online strategy.

What is the solution? Barring major advances in search technology, one should take into account both the search and the browse use case scenario when designing a web site. One way to help search engines to index your site, is to include many different variations to a common theme. To go back to my example, consider clip, fastener, table top, tabletop, attachment device and whatever other things one may possibly call your product. To facilitate browsing of your site, because your product will need to reside in a single location in the database, you will want to include as many cross links or pointer records to your product as possible. Therefore in our scenario, on the clip page, you would have a see also link at the bottom of the page.

Another useful technique to consider is to include a good filtering solution. When a user types in a very broad query such as fasteners, it is because your user is having trouble identifying what you have to sell. Otherwise, the user certainly would have typed in screw, or nail. After that things begin to break down. If they search for “Stainless steel screw” and find nothing because you have the item in a category called “Stainless_Steel” or “Steel_Stainless”. You should design a nice filter box that will allow them to select screws, stainless, 1 inch #12 if that is what they want. A click interface to search results is easy to implement, and allows a good combination of both browsing and searching.

All customers are not willing to spend four hours on your site just to purchase a .05 cent item … the best it would seem we can do is at least give our customers a fighting chance for finding our offerings.

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