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In an economic environment where the competition for end-users’ attention and interest is fierce, overlooking search inside your website and mobile application may damage your business.

Powerful and reliable Web search engines such as Google have created deeply rooted expectations for a responsive and intuitive access to online content and your users expect the same responsive experience once they access your service. Yet most websites and mobile applications still provide a frustrating and cumbersome navigation and exploration experience, supported by a poor internal search engine. Besides, people cannot stand wasting time and the Google guys got it: they’ve made moving between websites effortless. What people don’t find easily with you, Google will find it for them, and it may be with your competitors. Great site search reinforces retention but also brand awareness and customer loyalty.

End-users have high expectations when it comes to search

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible. This is how people use the Web, they hunt for information and content. In 2004 already, according to Nielsen Norman Group (2004), people would start their web sessions with a search engine 88% of the time. This hunt for content does not stop once users access your service. By using extremely fast and intuitive Web search engines such as Google or Yahoo, users have developed well-established unconscious expectations about what great search should be: the invisible link that understands an intent and translates it into in the right answer. Users have been conditioned to rely on such responsive and supportive search interfaces.

With the ever growing amount of content online services offer their users, internal search is now more central than ever to keep up with this need for an immediate access to relevant answers. Search has become the most important UX component for information retrieval and exploration inside online services. But the gap keeps increasing between this need for a powerful internal access to content and the poor navigability of some online services. It has become so important that unconsciously, people would rather trust Google to find content inside your service than your own internal search and navigation engine.

Return On Time Invested is the search’s KPI

People see the Web as an “integrated whole” where the fundamental units are pieces of information, not websites, so it is critical for websites and mobile applications to be able to quickly surface relevant information. In such a system, expecting users to navigate complicated information architectures through endless links and tabs is simply not a viable solution.

Users optimize their time and efforts in their hunt for information (see the information foraging theory by Pirolli ). They just behave like our ancestors who looked for patches of foods, looking to get the largest benefit with the smallest effort. They exhibit a short attention span, are time-constrained and highly impatient. Thus, they will exercise judgement and pragmatic decision-making strategies in deciding whether to persevere with a given information resource or to look for a different one. The amount of time a user spends on a given website is directly proportional to the travel time between sites and what happens is a phenomenon Jacob Nielsen (2003) describes as information snacking: since information resources are often disappointing and the between-patch time decreases thanks to Google and fast Internet connections, users simply spend less time on a given website and instead multiply their options. All ecommerce websites know that usability guideline: “If users can’t find a product, they won’t buy it”. But with Google and the shrinking travel time between websites, things have changed: “If users can’t find it fast, they won’t buy it” would indeed be closer to reality.

Search is a key element of your users’ loyalty

According to a Kelton Research study conducted among one thousand American adults  (2007) on “the state of search”, 78% of those who experience search engine fatigue “wished” that search engines could actually somehow “read their minds”. Visitors need to feel understood and treated fairly when interacting with a service. If you think about it, the search bar of a website or a mobile application is a unique field where the users express their intent the most clearly. This is by far the most valuable touch point between an end-user and an online service as well as a unique opportunity to engage a user in a “digital” conversation. Not surprisingly, returning poor results when a user takes the pain to articulate his intent translates into poor retention: would you engage in a relationship with someone who constantly answers off topic? Probably not and that’s nevertheless what’s happening on the Web today. The disappointment caused by a lack of relevance unfortunately damages your credibility and your brand.

Relevance is mandatory for retention but personalization is the key to loyalty. And whereas it’s not really possible to offer a browsing interface personalized per user, an efficient search function can provide an experience tailored to the particular needs of end-users. Results of a particular query can be pushed up the search results page according to personal data gathered during a session. Search rankings can also be tweaked on a per profile basis, take into account in real-time the preferences of each user, her friends, etc.

Let’s wrap up!

Today we are in a paradoxical situation where most efforts are put on external findability, websites wanting to be immediately accessible from Web search engines. But without a strong focus on the search feature of the website to achieve a great internal findability, all those branding and search engine optimization tactics are in vain. Internal search is about organizing your own information and making it universally accessible to your own users: what Google did for the Web, you now need to it for yourself!

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