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A great site search tool not only helps website visitors find what they already want, but also helps them discover products and information they hadn’t considered before. In order for this search and discovery experience to work, search needs to be seamless and intuitive.

Filters and facets are two ways to help users refine their query and discover more of your site’s offerings. By enabling users to quickly narrow down options and reach what they’re looking for, you can increase conversion rates and improve the user experience. Read on to learn more about what filters and facets do for your site’s search, and how using them correctly powers user engagement and conversions. 

 

The difference between filters and facets in search

Both filters and facets are used to narrow down a search (and its corresponding results) to a smaller subset of products. But there are significant differences in how they are used and how they appear in site search. Let’s look at them both here:

 

Filters

Filtering is the process of narrowing down a search based on predefined categories. Often times, these categories are broad and based on a single dimension of the product. This provides a quick way to drill-down from a large number of products to a more manageable set for further exploration.

Filters are general categories defined by the business that do not change between searches, and these filters are often applied behind the scenes. For example, an online clothing store would use “clothing type” as a filter, with shirts, pants, shoes, and accessories as four possible categories. When a website visitor clicks on “shirts” in the top navigation,  the clothing type filter is applied, and the visitor sees a results page with only shirts. 

Filters are often applied using the navigation of different sites, like e-commerce sites. Consider, for example, how Lacoste structures their navigation:

how Lacoste structures their navigation: 

When hovering over the Women’s category, you’ll see a number of different options, such as “Sneakers” or “Watches”. Each of these is a filter that allows a user to quickly narrow the entire catalogue down to one of these dimensions. You can think of this as the online equivalent of the map in a department store that tells you which floor to go to to find women’s shoes.

Filters are used in search to create a smaller, more relevant data set based on large categories on the site. The filter analyzes a set of data, like your entire catalog of products, and eliminates any that do not match the selected criteria. 

Filters can also appear on the search results page itself. For example, if you search for a specific topic on the New York Times website, you can filter by specific dates, which will exclude all articles outside of that time period. 

 

Facets and faceted search

Facets, also known as facet filters, allow users to refine their searches by multiple dimensions at the same time. Faceted  search is a more granular way to find products and results in a specific, targeted way that is not possible with broad, one-size-fits-all filters. 

Facets and faceted search are part of an optimised UI. Contextual facets that can change according to the item or the category drive a user-friendly experience by guiding the user down the quickest path to the best result. 

Say, for instance, we were to continue our shopping experience with Lacoste and choose to explore women’s shoes:

Search into Lacoste women shoes

 

Now we have the ability to refine the products even further. In this case, we select blue and black colors, size 6, and casual occasion — these are the search facets. By doing so, we’re able to take an otherwise broad search and refine it down to exactly the type of product we’re looking for. To extend the department store metaphor, this is the equivalent of the sales representative in the women’s shoe department telling us exactly where to find the size 6 casual blue and black shoes.

Unlike filters, facets change based on the search results returned for a given query. In the example above, a search for women’s shoes shows facets like color, size, and occasion. But when you search for women’s sunglasses, you see facets like shape and material. 

Search into Lacoste women's sunglasses

“Shape” is not an applicable facet for women’s shoes, and “occasion” is not a relevant facet for sunglasses. Instead, the facets are intelligently applied based on the characteristics of the items returned in the search. 

 

Filters vs facets at a glance

Ultimately, both filters and faceted search make exploring the site easier for the user. Here are the differences broken down:

Filters Facets
  • Website/search tool automatically excludes certain products based on large categories
  • User manually excludes certain products based on specific preferences
  • Uses one dimension at a time (i.e. clothing type)
  • Uses multiple dimensions at the same time (i.e. size, color, material, availability, etc.)
  • Sometimes visible to the user
  • Always visible to the user
  • Broad categories that do not change between searches
  • Specific categories that change based on the query and/or search results provided

 

Should your site use filters and faceted search?

Filters and facets are particularly useful tools for websites that have large collections of content that would otherwise be difficult to explore one piece at a time. Many news websites, for example, have thousands of articles, blogs, images, and reviews that would take a significant amount of time to scan through. Similarly, many e-commerce and media sites have lots of content that filters and faceted search can help users navigate through. Facets are also useful for catalogues with products or content that have multiple specifications, e.g., B2B product catalogues.

As facets allow for more complex and granular refinement of search, they should be used when more broad-based filtering is not sufficient to quickly help users find the content they’re looking for. And, in the post-search experience, facets are mandatory to quickly help users refine results.

For instance, if your website only offers a few dozen pages of content, a few broad filters may be sufficient. However, if your catalog spans many filters and boasts hundreds or thousands of pages, facets will help your users greatly. Users need ways to search multiple dimensions at the same time to ensure they can easily find products, contents, and services and not get frustrated with the search process.

 

Next steps with filters and facets

To build a seamless user search experience, you’ll need a search solution that provides  filtering and faceting tools that work for your business case. Learn more about how any site can create a robust search experience with filters, facets, and other features with our “Search Beyond the Box” e-books for media and e-commerce.

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