Shoppers with intent to buy only find what they are looking for half the time. That’s not good enough.

Amazon has one. So does Saks and Michael Kors. The search box—nestled at the top of the home page or hidden in the upper right corner—is an essential feature of retailers across the Internet Retailer 100, 500 and 1000

Spend a little time with on-site search on a retail site, and you’ll quickly realize that it hasn’t evolved much since Endeca hit the scene in 1999.  Seventeen years of search technology and e-commerce advances have not led to meaningful innovation.  Instead, shoppers attuned to Pinterest and Pokemon Go are stuck in a digital time warp of unfriendly text boxes and unhelpful results.

Site search is broken, and for retailers, the consequences are worse than you may realize.

The outward problem is what Brigham Young University professor Michael Hendron calls “findability.” Drawing from multiple sources, Hendron notes that 30% of e-commerce visitors use site search, and highly coveted buyers are 90% more likely to use site search. However, buyers only find what they’re looking for in 50% of all site searches.

When did we, as an industry, deem a 50% failure rate acceptable?

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Until recently, selling something online was a challenge unto itself. Engineers designed user experiences around technical requirements, not the emotional needs of human beings. “Does this work?” was their driving question. In design, means took a backseat to ends. In the process, the most important questions took a backseat too. How do I feel when I visit this site? What is it like to shop here? How easy is it to find and buy things I want?

Failed design is certainly not unique to search. In Seth Godin’s famous TED Talk, “This is broken,” the marketing guru examines comically poor design and ponders why it happens. His seven reasons have a common denominator: a lack of empathy. 

Empathy, by definition, requires understanding. But an overwhelming majority of search boxes don’t understand what people want, as a 2014 study by the Baymard Institute illustrates. Of the 50 top-grossing U.S. e-commerce websites, 70% required you to search in the website’s jargon (“blow dryer” can’t replace “hair dryer”), more than half couldn’t support thematic searches (“beach” or “cold weather”), and although 82% offered auto-suggestions, 36% of the implementations did “more harm than good.”

If you told a retail associate, “Hi, I need a hoodie for cold weather sports,” she wouldn’t say, “Sports? Never heard of them.” Likewise, the associate wouldn’t say, “Well, we only sell ‘hooded sweatshirts.’ Bye.” These situations happen on web and mobile—and nowhere else.

Shoppers today can purchase almost anything online; credit cards and free shipping and returns have removed the magic from online shopping. Therefore, the ease, simplicity, and quality of the process matter more than ever to attract, win and retain customers. The customer experience is the biggest differentiation.

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To become unbroken, site search has to strike a balance between technical requirements and empathy. Three principles can help it get there:

1. Prioritize Findability. Many e-commerce sites look at shopper conversion rates without examining the effort it took to make that purchase. Running 32 searches to buy one pair of jeans does not qualify as easy or effective for anyone but the most devoted shopper.

Examine what does and does not happen on your website. Did the buyer search “shoes” and stay on the results page? Did she scroll, browse, or search by category? How many queries did she run? Using what words? What abbreviations, synonyms, and themes lead to dead ends on your website? Identify where findability falls apart and use these insights to better serve your customers.

2. Entice. Make it easy to find goods, but do not rush shoppers to the finale. Inside the actual search results, give people the freedom to explore, play, and learn before they commit to a purchase.  The best way to do this:  Replace static lists and grids with gorgeous visuals, dynamic movement, and interactivity.

For example, why not let shoppers digitally mix and match bikini tops and bottoms? Why not rearrange images as the search term takes shape to create a dynamic experience that improves on Pinterest and Instagram? Just like in-store visitors, online shoppers need the inspiration, space and guidance to validate their decision. Search can create or kill that space.

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3. Personalize. Just as the best associate knows the style of her regular customers, the search bar should know a shopper’s demonstrated preferences. It should be able to suggest search results based on past purchases, searches, browsing patterns, social media activity, and other unique criteria.

To be clear, personalization is different from bare-bones autocomplete or autosuggest, which offer results based on generic parameters. With personalization in play, no two shoppers have an identical search experience.

Site search is fixable and ripe for disruption. Now that engineers have the leeway to think logically and psychologically, e-commerce will find a balance between function and findability. Site search is broken, but not for long.

RichRelevance provides personalization technology to 50 of the Top 500 online retailers in North America, according to Top500Guide.com.

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