If you’ve ever used directory assistance to locate a telephone number, there’s a good chance you weren’t always given the correct number. When that happens, you’re likely to call again and hope you’ll get an operator who knows what to do.

On a Web site, however, it’s more likely that if a search is taking too long or if you’re having trouble navigating through the site, you’ll go someplace else.

According to Steve Telleen, Managing Director of the Web Site ScoreCard practice at Giga Information Group, two of the most common mistakes made on Web sites include not providing an adequate site search function, and not providing global navigation. If you’re a CIO trying to encourage e-commerce, making sure your Web site includes these basic elements could mean the difference between e-business and no business.
Our first article in this series, “Make sure the ‘e’ in e-commerce stands for easy,” suggested that Web sites need to provide clear information to visitors on the home page. Last week’s article, “Customers getting lost? Give them a site map,” which builds on Giga’s report on the most common Web site mistakes, gives reasons why you should consider a site map for your business.
Not providing adequate site search
Although simple sites may not require a site search, nearly all the sites that Giga examined while compiling a report on the eight most common mistakes made on e-commerce Web sites would have been more usable if they had better search capabilities, Telleen said.

Since many visitors already know what they want when they visit a site, they’re more likely to look for it through a search than by clicking through links, said Elizabeth Lawler, CEO of Iris Interactive, a Web-site design company.

While agreeing that a smaller site might not need a search engine now, she believes it’s a good idea to install one if the company has plans for growth: “It’s not a bad option to go ahead and get it done. It’ll set them up for a bigger site in the future.”

Must search stink?
Even if you have a site search, it might not be serving your visitors well enough.

In a Forrester Research report titled “Must Search Stink?” published in June, authors Paul R. Hagan, Yolanda Paul, and Harley Manning contend that search is an afterthought for most companies.

In their analysis of 30 business-to-business sites, 93 percent either didn’t offer keyword search at all, or else had search engines that failed basic tasks. And 52 percent of the sites they surveyed for the search report didn’t measure the effectiveness of their search engines.

The report asserts that “Managers—in a rush to get sites up—make expedient technology choices. They assume search works because usage reports show that it gets high traffic, and few customers make the effort to complain.”

Why searches fail
Forrester’s report identifies four causes of poor searches:

  • Weak technology
  • Inadequate background knowledge (resulting in the search engine’s inability to place a query in its proper context)
  • Poorly managed content
  • Unfriendly user interfaces

Manning, a research director at Forrester, argues that an inadequate site search can do your company more harm than good. “If your search is really bad,” he says, “I’d turn it off and come back to it later when you have the money, because you’re talking about maybe a half a million dollars to fix it.”

Users, Manning argues, expect search to work, and it almost never does. “Many search engines are embarrassing to the site,” he said.

One search engine, for example, gave him results that the company wouldn’t have wanted: “I found a partially completed annual report that the developer had abandoned.”

Search features
So what makes a good site search?

Telleen believes it should include the entire site rather than limit itself to products. “If someone requests pages on ‘jobs’ or ‘investor information,’ product-only search engines return negative results,” he said. But obviously, if you have such information on your site, you want interested visitors to be able to find it.”

One option available for companies is a “smart search,” which allows users the option to search the type of data they want. If, for example, the user wants to search all data, the results come back grouped, said Dave Hunt, senior developer at Micro Computer Solutions.

Hunt recommends that search functions should also be able to deal with misspellings. For example, if a traveler wants to buy a ticket to Albuquerque but doesn’t know how to spell it, the airline could lose a customer if its search engine were to report “no matches found” rather than recommend alternatives to the misspelling.

However, such sophistication comes with a high price, and it might not be financially feasible for many companies. In view of the cost, Hunt suggests looking at the nature of your site to assess how important it is to deal with misspellings. Currently, he’s developing a site that functions much like an online library.

“In that case, you have to have the smart search and the misspellings,” he said. “It’s expensive because you have to populate and maintain the data. The way we do it is to include the misspellings. It’s also expensive in terms of server time and speed. Searches will take longer. That’s not necessarily a monetary cost for you, but it’ll cost the user some time.”

Not providing adequate global navigation
Web sites that make the mistake of not providing adequate global navigation have failed to keep up with emerging standards and expectations. You’ve certainly noticed that many sites have a global navigation bar on each page, usually across the top or down the left side, with links to the major sections of the site. If a navigation bar uses graphics, you’ll often find the same links in text format at the bottom of the page.

“People are getting into the habit of looking in the same place for information,” Hunt said. “It has to be exactly the same on every page unless you have expanding sections, like trees on left-hand navigation or drop-downs on upper navigation for subsections. But the major sections always stay there. It’s a no-no for navigation buttons to disappear. Users will get lost.”

Unlike site maps and searches, implementation of a global navigation bar doesn’t depend on factors that might vary from site to site. Lawler points out that if your site is as well organized, the items that go into the bar should be obvious.

Consistent global navigation will help keep users oriented, and it assures them that no matter where they go on the site, they’ll be able to find other pages easily. And that’ll help keep them on your site.

Ray Dittmeier is a freelance technology writer based in Louisville, KY.

The new version of TechRepublic includes expanded search functions that allow users quicker access to content. Have you updated your search functions on your Web site? Have you made changes to the UI to make navigation easier? Tell us about your work in an e-mail or post your comments.