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By Shaun Ryan

RISMEDIA, Feb. 25, 2008-(eMarketingAndCommerce)-Consumers expect to find what they’re looking for quickly – particularly when looking online. As a result, providing relevant search results is imperative for the success of any business on the Web. When customers can’t find an item, they’ll assume you don’t stock it – even when there’s a chance they just used a search term that you hadn’t thought of.

Whether you’re a publisher of information or a retailer offering a few thousand products or a million, search should be a critical part of your website design strategy. Unfortunately many out-of-the box search solutions don’t always provide your visitors with relevant search results.

Following are tips to bring the right results to your customers so they can find the product – or information – they’re looking for quickly and easily.

1. Leverage your customers’ search information. Customer preferences change constantly, as do the keywords they use to search, so it’s important to have a good understanding of what search terms people use to find which products.

A good example of this is a seasonal business like floral site FTD.com. By tracking the search terms people use and what items they click on, FTD.com has powerful information that shows what arrangements are popular for Valentine’s Day as compared to “birthday,” “get well” or “wedding” flowers. This data helps the company better promote its products to be in line with customers’ constantly changing preferences.

Likewise, it’s important to know which search terms are generating poor results – or terms people use that don’t deliver what they’re looking for. For example, someone might search for “jelly,” but your products are labeled as “jam” – and no results come back. Knowing this can help you identify areas of your search that need attention, where you might need to stock additional products or include other keywords in existing product descriptions.

2. Include the right information with each search result. In addition to showing relevant results, you want to make sure each result gives the right information that will help the searcher determine if it’s what he or she is looking for.

Another option to consider is presenting the search results in the form of a grid. This format can be useful when there are lots of results to sort through, as it essentially allows you to show more items in a smaller space.

Knowing what information to include and in what format to present the results is based largely on the types of products you sell and the browsing habits of your customers. A good search vendor should be able to give you advice on which approach will work best for your site.

3. Give your customers alternatives if what they’re searching for isn’t available. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting a message that says “no matches found” when doing a search online. But that’s what happens with most search solutions if a customer types an unusual search term or searches for an item that’s no longer in stock.

CableOrganizer.com knows its inventory and promotions change all the time. To overcome this problem, it has developed keyword-specific banners that suggest similar products if the product or offer being searched for is unavailable.

4. Allow customers to define a set of criteria (e.g., price, occasion, brand, color, etc.) in order to narrow the search results. Giving your customers the ability to define a set of search criteria gives them a useful way to see products that fall under different categories. For example, a search for “slippers” on Footwear etc. allows you to further refine your results by gender, category, size, brand, color or width – which makes it extremely easy for someone to see only women’s slippers if that’s what they want. Again, the point is to make things as easy as possible for your customers.

5. Finally, make it as easy as possible for your customers to purchase the product. By integrating the “Buy Now” button with the search results, you give your customers one less step to go through to purchase your products – which is always good.

It’s no coincidence that the most flexible and useful site search implementations belong to businesses that recognize the importance of a good customer experience. Help customers quickly and easily find the products they seek, and they’ll reward you with their purchases.

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