Sounds too good to be true? It usually is.

Faceted NavigationJulie Capshaw writes: “Tony from {Name Redacted} says nothing would make him happier than your death!!! He had me convinced that you were wrong about everything related to our internal text search until today. Today we got their new contract and you were right.  They’re slimebags! Our price increased SIX times over what it was this year!!! Now where should we go? I need a new vendor ASAP!!!”

Julie!  Julie!  Julie!

When will you ever learn?

As much as I’d love to out {Name Redacted}, I am too busy engaging in Twitter Flame Wars to get into another kitty litter dust-up this week so you’ll have to suffice with this short post and recommendations in a private email.

Do you like Amazon’s internet text search function?

Two days ago, I was searching for Kevin Hlllstrom’s new book.  (The $95 one that I won’t understand not the $.99 one that I can understand and already bought.)  It’s called Hillstrom’s Digital Profiles.  When I searched on Amazon for “Kevin Hillstrom,” it listed his books (print and Kindle editions) and then books about Indians, the Cold War, the Michigan Adventure Guide, and Watergate.  I was on my phone so I kept scrolling and then I finally got to the new book.

So you tell me, was my search experience good?  Bad?  Indifferent?

I’ve bought every one of Kevin’s books.  Amazon knows this.  Amazon employs wizards and fairies with pixie dust and unicorns AND spends MILLIONS  OF DOLLARS to PERFECT their search.  They know all the books I buy (averagely 10-12 books a week – yes, a week) and they know that I am far more interested in marketing than Michigan.  The best thing about Michigan is @netmeg and she’s so mysterious God only knows if she really lives there or even exists for that matter.  She could be a bot. But I digress…

Amazon uses rainbows AND THE POTS OF GOLD UNDERNEATH THEM, yet, they still don’t do it 100% right.

Am I picking on Amazon?  Absolutely not.  I love them.

But if Amazon can’t perfect their text search – in a simple area like FLIPPING books?  Well, there’s not a lot of hope for the rest of you.

Which brings me to Reason #1 that Tony hates me.  I do not believe any internal text search will ever be perfect (because users are not) and promising a package will be?  Heh.  Hilarious.

Reason #2.  (Don’t worry, I am not going through ALL the reasons.  I have neither the time nor the inclination to write a tome tonight.) Many (not all, but many) text search companies tell people all sorts of bogus “facts” (cough) based on their “years of testing and proprietary research” which roughly translates to their sales and marketing departments making up crap and the lawyers blessing it with “no, we can’t really defend it but nobody sues anyway so don’t worry about it.”

For example, most of the companies will tell you to put your search box in the upper righthand corner of your site because that’s where it works best.

They’re right. That’s not a complete lie – it’s one of the top two places. 

What they OMIT however is that many of them know that putting it in the upper righthand corner often increases the number of searches, which may or may NOT be a good thing for your business.  Usually it’s not.  Depends on how good your data is.  A lot of people leave on search – failed searches and searches that you deem “successful” where the user can’t find anything.  (In other words: UNsuccessful.)

The sneaky thing is that only 1/3 of the users typically leave on the search results page – the rest leave on the 2-3 subsequent pages.

Do the search companies tell you that? Yeah.  Not. Usually.

One of the main reasons why they want people to take advantage of your search is a lot of them have commission deals and get paid per search and/or directed search result page.  Thus, they have a VESTED interest in telling you to put it in the place that’s best for them.

Is this a rant?  No.  It’s a reminder for us all (myself included) – when vendors tell you stuff and give you all their stacks of back-up information, it’s usually for a purpose and it’s often VERY biased. 

Review the sources.  Figure out what the sample size is.  Look to see if there was a control group.  Determine what kind of significance there was to the study.  Find out who paid for the research.  Find out if the participants were compensated.   You get the drill.  

If it sounds too good to be true?  It usually is.

Have a question you’d like answered?  Click here now to submit it for FREE or email me at

5 Sure-Fire Tips for Improving Your Internal Text Search

Shannon Colyer writes “I saw you speak two years ago with my then VP.  (We have a new one now.)  You advised us not to purchase a $150,000+ guided navigation program  because you said that it wouldn’t fix our data problems.  The VP (my then boss) thought you were nuts so we bought it anyway.  Our whole ecommerce team agreed with your points but he vetoed us.  Anyway, what you said would happen is exactly what happened  and now we have a worse internal search function than we did before.  Don’t even get me started about our navigation.  I think it’s what you call a Polynesian Train Wreck!  Our new VP is one of those hatchet types and won’t let us spend any more money to fix it until we ‘prove we know what we’re doing.’  What can we do?  Do you have any suggestions?  I understand if you think we’re too much of a lost cause at this point to help but any suggestions you have will be greatly appreciated.”

Dear Shannon:

So, let me get this straight.  Rain Man was replaced by Chainsaw Al and your text search sucks?  Is that right?

Not to worry, most sites have craptastic text search functions.  You are not alone. 

Here are some tips for you or anyone else whose text search function leaves a lot to be desired…

Focus on your top products, starting with the top 10%.  Those are the things that people MUST be able to find so do whatever it is that you need to do to make that happen.  (If you’re a company that doesn’t have products per se, do the same thing with your services or benefits.) 

Make sure the most important stuff is found first.   You have three items (or features) to prove that you know what you’re talking about.  The first thing you show is, by far, the very most important.  What does that mean?  It means that you need to look at your top xx searches (my recommendation: start with the top 100) and look at the first item you see.  If it’s not your bestseller (or the item you most want to sell), figure out how to change it.   (Again, do this on your top products first.)

Spend more time perfecting your navigation.  Solid C-navigation (top, bottom and left) takes a lot of pressure off your text search.

Make sure you’ve addressed The Word Connect.  It seems simplistic but it will help you a lot and it will give you a totally new perspective on your users.

Bury your text search box.  Yes, I know, this is NOT at all a popular recommendation, but if your text search stinks it’s worth, well, hiding it.  Companies who sell search programs are the ones who’ve put out the majority of information about where your text search box should be.   They almost always say to put it in the top righthand corner or middle column of your site.  Why? Because this is where it gets used most.  Sadly, what they don’t tell you is that whatever you put in the top righthand corner or middle column is going to get a lot of attention because those are two of the BIGGEST hot spots on your site.  If your text search is weak, put it in the top lefthand column underneath your e-mail sign-up box.  It will still be easy to access for your users but they won’t confuse you as a library not a bookstore & you’ll reduce the number of unsuccessful searches.  (If you have the perfect search, put it in the top middle column.)

There are lots of other tips for improving your internal text search but those are the ones I’d start with.  The key is to really look at what people are searching for on (and off) your site and then fix those results first.  Your visitors will set the course if you let them.   Even the worst of the internal text search packages usually takes care of the plurals and misspellings but a lot of times the other stuff takes a lot of manual tweaking.  (Yes, that’s contrary to what they tell you.)

Have other tips for fixing a broken internal search?  Add them in the comments below or e-mail them to me at and I will add them to a future post!

P.S.  And Shannon, Polynesian Train Wreck sites are those that look like the Easter Bunny threw up all over them.  Next time, get the lingo straight ok?

The #1 Proven Formula for Text Search that Nobody Ever Tells You About…

Robert Foster “This isn’t a question but a comment.  Your obsession with navigation is dated.  EVERYONE uses text search.  As an ecommerce “expert,” you, of all people, should know that. Maybe it’s time to retire to the golf course or the poker table.  Just a thought.”

Robert dah-link, I retired to the poker table years ago.  Didn’t you get the memo?

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t get this type of {idiotic} comment.

Yes, it’s 2010.

Yes, navigation still accounts for over half your success online.  In fact, for many it’s a 75% determinant.


Many marketing executives, especially the lame-ass, lazy ones (like Robert Foster, and yes that is his real name) who should be shot, think text search will solve all their problems. 

Sadly, text search just doesn’t work that way EVEN if you have a fancy-schmancy guided navigation package.  Granted, they help…. A lot…   but even the most expensive ones won’t solve all your site’s issues.


Because users don’t search well.   Women search with all sorts of adjectives and qualifiers (example, pretty, size 6) and men search with extraneous punctuation, randomly shortened words/phrases, and all sorts of typos and misspellings.  (Yes, this is stereotypical but the research supports it.  Deal. With. It.)

The best thing you can do for your site is to develop it so that it will work WITHOUT a text search feature.   Implement solid top navigation, lefthand navigation and bottom navigation.   Build a strong, righthand “save” column.  Use Problem/Solution drop-downs when you can (you can use two in the top action bar and two to three in the lefthand navigation, if spaced appropriately.)  

Then, use your text search as a bonus.

What’s the top secret, 007 formula for text search that nobody ever tells you about?

The presentation is often more important than the finds you show.

Yeah, yeah, I know.

Almost everyone and their brother disagrees with this in theory — but test it for yourself  and you’ll see – in practice, the presentation makes a world of difference.

First, if your search is better than ok (please don’t do this if your text search totally sucks), make your text search box bigger.  Yes, bigger as in longer.  Why?  Because people screw up less when the box itself is bigger.  Not only do they make fewer typing mistakes but they also use more words.  People like to use three to five words when searching — small boxes mentally give them room for one. When users are limited to a teeny-tiny space, they tend to think.  Unfortunately, thinking is bad for most online shoppers.

Test your text search in the middle column.   After users hit the second page of your site, they spend the majority of their time in the middle column.  They look to the left when they need help.  They look to the right when they are about to leave.  If you don’t think your mother could find anything using your text search, put it in the top lefthand column, below the e-mail sign-up box.  And remember, the more you emphasize it (for example, if you place it in the upper righthand quad of your site), the more likely the user will try it.  (Again, not always a good thing.)

Start the cursor in the text search box.  Yes, it sounds like a little detail.  But little details add up.  (Same with a search icon — a little magnifying glass — should be used near the box itself.)  And yes, little details — like BIG details – should ALL be tested.  What works for someone else might not work for you at all and vice versa.

The key to a good search though is what you do AFTER the user types the words in the box and hits return or your BIG “go” button.    Use a large headline to tell the user “Good news!” (or something equally cheery),  how many you found (“we found 37”) and what they searched for (“bananas!”)    You can play around with the wording but the key is to use a number and remind them of what they searched for USING EXACTLY WHAT THEY TYPED IN!  (If you are autocorrecting you should list both — what they typed in (banannnaas) and what you found (bananas.)

Make sure the finds are in order of priority – meaning you put the stuff that’s most important first.  (In other words, the bestsellers.) 

Try NOT to list out of stock or coming soon items in the first six or so results.  You can only “guarantee” that the user is going to look at the first three (if you are in a 3 columns, three rows format.)  The second line is hopeful.  After that, it’s touch and go.  (Mostly just go.)  By the way,  if the #1 find happens to be out of stock and you want to list it, make sure to employ an “I wanted this!” button on the product page.

Make sure you have a VIEW ALL option.  People don’t like to paginate on ecommerce sites.  View All allows the user an “at a glance” way to look at things.   It’s not recommended to force “view all” but just to give it as a prominent option.

Make sure your previous and next buttons are big.  The way in which you allow the user to navigate from the top AND the bottom of the finds is critical to your success. 

Allow the user to refine their options.  This is the view by name/price/date type option.  The key here is to not allow too many refinements (keep it under six choices if you can) and to make sure that you ONLY offer refinements that apply to the product.  For example, if you are selling a book, you don’t need a sort by size option.

What are your best text search tips?  If you’ve got something to add, please jot it below… 

Diamonds with an “e”

A couple months ago, I was sitting in the airport with one of my closest friends waiting to go to Los Angeles. I hate LA with a passion. It’s dirty, it’s ugly and nobody understands my flipping English.

Needless to say, I was grumpy at the concept of spending five days there and “Paul” (named changed to protect the guilty) was doing nothing to improve my mood.

You see, Paul plays poker for a living. He’s made quite the name for himself, playing online, in tournaments and in cash games. And, although I TRIPLE LOVE the guy, all this celebrity has gone to his head. He’s more spoiled than all the evil children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory combined. He knows it and he gets away with it – “just ‘cuz.”

Bottom line — he hadn’t brought his computer because it was “too much to carry” and “he could always use mine anyway.” Not exactly the best news to tell someone whose life revolves around her Dell Inspiron laptop.

Needless to say, after spending an extra hour in airport security (they only allow so many “bricks” of cash and Paul had “mistakenly” exceeded the limit) and subsequently missing our plane, Paul knew he was in the dog house.

“Baby, I want to buy you something nice.” (Please note: “baby” is used for any female from 9 months to 90 years old. It’s one of those terms like sick, kick it, chill, rage, muah, and suck out that I can’t possibly begin to explain here… or there… or anywhere….)

Secretly, I thought, “if you want to buy something, buy your own damn computer” but instead I pouted…. “I don’t want anything nice.”

“Ok, I will buy you something not nice then.” he retorted with a devilish grin.

Terrified at that particular prospect, I glanced at the search box. Waiting, waiting, waiting, until I finally saw him type in “diamondes”. Yes, with an “e”.

Here’s a guy who makes over $9 million a year in cash… not to mention all the bazillions of dollars worth of swag (free stuff) he gets, and he is spelling diamonds with an “e”? Nice. Very nice.

Now, to put this in perspective, the last time Paul had used my computer, he went to get something to drink. When he came back, the computer screen was black. Knowing that he would be attending his own funeral if he had broken my computer, he asked “Um yeah, what’s wrong with the screen?”

Not looking up, I said “It’s sleeping.”

“WOW!” he exclaimed “I worked it so hard (playing online poker) that it needed to take a nap? I guess I need to give it a rest! Maybe I’ll take a little nappy-nap myself”, as he pounced like Tigger off into the bedroom. (And no, I could not possibly make these stories up.)

Ahhh Paul…. Diamonds with an “e”. Frankly, any diamond is good to me as long as it’s genuine and sized like rock candy, but really, how could he NOT know how to spell it? I mean, not only had he attended college, but he had actually graduated from it and it wasn’t one of those $39.95 online degrees from the Phillippines either.

And then I remembered that this is what happens when boys sit down at the computer and try to use the text search.

From a usability perspective, women and men search very differently. I hate to say it, girls, but women are the world’s worst at searching. Why? For many reasons, but mostly because we use lots of adjectives and qualifiers in our searches. We use them to “help out the computer”, but in the end, they are of no benefit to us or the man behind the machine.

Women search for things like “big old dining room table to seat eight at Thanksgiving” or “gift to give at a baby shower for my niece who is turning 23″. I have 200% confidence that at some point we’ll be able to search like that, but right now, the technology just isn’t sophisticated enough. When a woman searches for “pretty blue dress size 6 to wear to the Kentucky Derby” she’s going to get over 117,000 “successful” finds on Google, most of which have to do with horse junk and very few that have anything to do with apparel.

Men are much different. They think like computers, so of course, they search like computers. Men are much better than woman at knowing the exact right thing to search for. They’ll type in blue dress. However, stereotypically, they’ll also misspell it or it will be riddled with typos or unnecessary punctuation. Men tend to smush words together like “bluedress” or they’ll add random periods as in “blue.dress.” They also tend to stop typing whenever they feel like it — so “supermarket” could become “superma” at any time. (You know when Google says “Did you mean …?” That’s for the boys in the room.)

Eight ways to improve your text search… knowing full-well that you’ll never be able to please everyone.

1. Develop and implement a thesaurus, a dictionary and a list of commonly misspelled words. And, yes, I realize that this is a simple tip but statistically less than a quarter of the companies actually do it.

2. Make sure you have proper C-Navigation. A lot of times people use the text search because they can’t find what they are looking for in the navigation. That’s why it’s important to use things like tabbed top navigation and solid left and bottom nav, too.

3. Offer problem/solution navigation. Problem/solution navigation takes the pressure off the text search because it offers the user an alternative way to search besides an index. For example, Garden’s Alive has two P/S drop-downs in the top navigation. One says “What pests do you want to control today?” and the other one says “What do you want to accomplish today?” Fiorella’s Jack Stack BBQ also has two choices. One is “How many are you feeding?” and the other is “What are you hungry for?” Both companies give you a drop-down list of the most popular choices. VERY effective technique because you don’t have to worry about poor spelling or estrogen!

4. Track the words people are using to search within your site. At the end of every week, dump them into an Excel spreadsheet and make sure all of the important words get fed back into your database or content management system. You should also make sure that all of the words that people are using to find you in search engines are well represented on your site and in your search. (Not doing this is one of the biggest mistakes companies make.)

5. Tell people what they can search for in the search box. For example, if someone can search for item numbers, please make sure to tell them. Offline users tend not to understand this, so they’ll use your descriptions instead of the product numbers. Product numbers get you almost 70% successful searches, while descriptions get you about a quarter of that.

6. If a search fails, offer the user tips on searching, a new search box and a list of five items that they should purchase or view. Text searches account for a huge percentage of abandons and one of the primary reasons is because the no-results-found page is a dead end (meaning the user isn’t able to go any further).

7. Develop an abandoned search program. Send cookied users a personal email that says “We’re sorry you couldn’t find what you were looking for. Here are some other suggestions….” Very few people are doing this and it’s working like gangbusters. Sending failed searches to telemarketing is also working VERY well. It’s a proven fact that people who search have the second highest propensity to buy.

8. If all else fails, get a good search package. Endeca, Mercado, these days there are dozens to choose from.

5 Proven Techniques for Improving Your Navigation

I’m this close (see my fingers almost touching) to murdering one of my clients…

Don’t get me wrong… I adore the guy but he and his team are just TOO SMART to be good Web marketers. They just don’t seem to be able to think INSIDE the box. Looking at things from a Lowest Common Denominator perspective is THE key to Web success.

Here’s the abridged story….

One of the things this company sells is trash cans. In fact, according to them, they are the market leader in trash can sales. So, my client, Oscar (named changed to protect the guilty) says to me recently “I don’t understand what’s happening. We sell the majority of the trash cans out there. In fact, we’ve sold over umpteenbazillion (I honestly can’t remember the exact number) each week offline. So why aren’t we selling any online? YOU must have done something wrong with our navigation.”
I love it when he personally attacks me because it gives me the chance to remind him that their sales are up over 35% from last year thanks to all my “screw ups” and “by the way, where’s my commission check?”
Actually, I had very little, if anything, to do with their navigation because the recommendations I suggested were overruled by their “internal team”. They thought I was “too archaic.” In their words, people don’t need things spelled out for them today — they’re savvy enough to know what’s what.
This, of course, is a VERY BIG FALLACY! Even though users have been shopping for a long time, they’re actually LESS savvy online than they used to be — mostly because they spend less time on your site which means they are less likely and less inclined to learn anything about it.
In any case, to make a long story short, Oscar’s team had put all the TRASH cans under Receptacles. Not under garbage. Not under trash. Not under waste. Not rubbish. And certainly not under all of them (which is the way I recommended.) But under receptacles.
Frankly, I don’t care what you list trash cans under in your catalog — catalogs are TANGIBLE and much easier to navigate than a Web site with seemingly infinite possibilities. Catalogs have a clear beginning and end. You can easily take a catalog in your hand and flip through it untill you see the picture you want. Web sites are NOT the same.
Navigation on a Web site is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You get what I give you. If I am a bookstore and I give you the categories history, fiction, non-fiction, children’s, poetry, and lifestyle and entertainment, where are you going to find a cookbook? What about a book about how to play golf? How about a book on how to make things out of polymer clay? Since there are no cooking, sports and crafts categories, is everything supposed to be under lifestyle and entertainment? Do you honestly think L&E when you’re looking for a cookbook? No, you think cooking. (By the way, the above is a real example of an online bookstore.)
 If you don’t see cooking as a category, what do you do? Statistically, over 50% of the people will leave immediately. The third of the people (if you have a good brand) who stay will drill around and most likely adopt your text search (the #1 place of abandonment, after the cart, for the majority of Web sites.)
So, in a nutshell, pretty much everyone leaves and nobody is happy. Your users aren’t happy because they didn’t find what they wanted and you’re not happy because you didn’t get the sale.

The good news is that it’s fixable.

Find out what your customers want. Track what they are using to find you and what they are looking at and for on your site. Look at exactly what words they are using and make sure those words are represented on your site. If Oscar’s team had really looked at their statistics, they would not bring someone who searched for trash cans on Google to a site that had NO representation of the words “trash can” on the entry page, category page or any other page between. 
Make sure the most important things you have are listed. If they are REALLY important make sure they are listed two, three, four, five, or even ten times. The more ways people have to find them, the more likely they are to find them.
List the index section (no more than 22-ish items, please.) in alphabetical order so the user can figure out what you sell and where they should go AT-A-GLANCE.   If a big percentage of your business comes from a couple items (or categories), put them in a highlights section above the index and then put Bestseller! icons near them in the alphabetical section underneath so they stand out.
Then watch. Chances are, you won’t hit perfection right off the bat. However, if you pay attention to what’s happening on your site, you will know what’s working and what isn’t so you can fix it.

As a footnote…

Oscar and Co. changed their navigation and their online sales of trash cans as a percentage are already exceeding their offline sales. I haven’t gotten my commission check yet, but according to his team, I am no longer an archaic dinosaur but a forward-thinking Web Diva, which is worth way more to me than the check.  (Yes, I am well aware they are not using “diva” in the flattering sense of the word but frankly, it’s still fine.  I’ve been doing this for a long, long time.  I’ve been called a heck of a lot worse.)