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Why the Search Experience on Your Website Still Matters

Here are three options for implementing a magical on-site search experience for your users.

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Let’s face it. If you’re reading this post then you’re embarrassed by the sorry state of your website’s search. Predictive? Probably not. Returning results across multiple websites? Good luck with that. Results categorized by content type? Nope. Let me ask you this: if a search term is off by a letter, do your users get the results they need? (You know the answer.)

While the benefits of great UI and UX are well documented, a website’s search function is often overlooked. Here are a few things a powerful on-site search can do for you:

  • Reduce the bounce rate and increase conversions on your ecommerce website.
  • Deliver speedier and more tailored access to your university programs, leading to increased applications.
  • Centralize access to content across your many website platforms, freeing up resources from your team.

Just like there are many different ways to improve the UX of your website, there are many different ways to approach—and improve—your website’s search experience. And when people find what they need, everyone benefits. For this post, I’ll share some search tools we’ve implemented and had good experiences with.

But first, how did we get here?

Blame Google

Over the past 20+ years, we’ve all become accustomed to effortless Google searches. Start typing and Google’s predictive analytics attempt to complete your thought, delivering extremely relevant results at lightning speed. Which is what you’d expect from a company whose mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Predictive google search results displaying a search for Almanac

Google set the standard for how we humans look for things online, but they’ve also paved the way for new types of search (think voice search) and new tools that leverage artificial intelligence to predict what users might be interested in.

Sidebar: Technology that uses prediction and suggestion is getting so good that some people are worried about its power. What happens when the speed of suggestion outstrips the speed of thought and the speed of intention? If you like getting freaked out and you’re up for a little diversion, check out Radiolab’s recent podcast on this, The Wubi Effect.

Three Search Tools 

Google has us trained to expect more from our search tools, and that’s not a bad thing. There are many great tools out there that you can implement to make your website search work harder for you and will allow you to deliver more value to your users. Here are three.

1) Algolia

I love Algolia. Our first opportunity to deploy Algolia was on a large Drupal website project for University of Iowa Health Care’s Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center website and it worked great!

Algolia is a hosted solution, which makes it exceptionally fast, delivering results from the very first keystroke. It’s easy to set up: you’ll use their API to seamlessly send your website content to Algolia’s servers. You’ll also get a nice dashboard where you can configure different aspects of the search results and train the system to deliver the right experience for your users.

Algolia search engine features

Among many other benefits, Algolia can search multiple website properties (across different domains, on separate servers) and multiple content types, so it’s a great solution when you want to unify search into one cohesive experience. While it can index document text (like pdfs or Word docs), you must extract the content from it and index it in their system. It’s an extra step, but hey, you really shouldn’t be using PDFs. It’s 2020.

Lastly, It even works with voice, which we utilized on the Holden project.

Voice search sample from the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Website

Algolia has a free plan and then after a certain cutoff, charges a fee per 1,000 search requests. Learn more:

2) Relevanssi

Relevanssi is what we use on smaller WordPress website builds, where the functionality offered by hosted services like Algolia isn’t going to be fully realized. This may be because there is simply less content on the site, or because there are only one or two website properties.

Relevanssi replaces the standard WordPress search and gives you a number of filters to control how and what is searched and returned with the results. Similar to Algolia, Relevanssi will allow you to search across many sites (however unlike Algolia, the sites must be running on the same multi-site network). You can also search WordPress custom fields and even search the content of uploaded pdf files.

We recently deployed Relevanssi for one of our clients on their new ecommerce website. Users are able to return results across product SKUs and product data alongside customer support and blog content.

Relevanssi offers a free WordPress plugin, but we’d highly recommend their paid version, which for a minimal fee gives you access to extra features (like the .pdf search). Learn more:

3) Funnelback

Funnelback is a smart search engine that gives internal teams the ability to customize results, promote important content, and search across multiple CMS platforms. A number of our higher education clients use it to break down silos by returning results like people, courses, research and events from across disparate web properties. This makes it a good solution for use across a full website ecosystem, from gateway websites like a primary .edu, all the way down to a department level.

Funnelback’s pricing is based around the number of records in your database. A nice perk is that each license comes with accessibility, seo and content auditing tools as well. Learn more:

In summary, your website search can and should do more for you.

These are just three of the many, many search platforms out there. Selecting the right one really comes down to your unique goals and the needs of your audience. If you’d like help selecting and implementing a better search platform, please reach out! Our team would love to nerd out with you!

Illustration by Michael Worful.