Don’t make your site visitors work to learn about your organization or to give you business.
Face it. Your website visitors are lazy. As pretty and organized and wonderful as your site may be, they don’t have the time or patience to sift through paragraphs and paragraphs of text, clicking link after link after link, trying to find directions to your store, samples of your work, or the free download you promised your Facebook fans.
Think about it. When you go to a website with a specific purpose in mind, what do you do? Do you click around and marvel at all the interesting information the website has to offer? Do you explore each page and read through until you finally find the one thing you wanted to know? Of course you don’t. And no one else does either. Most people heavily rely on a website’s search function to locate the exact info they are seeking. And your website visitors are no different.
Does size matter?
You may argue that your website is too small to warrant a search function. Perhaps it is. If your visitors can clearly see all the pages available to them through the main navigation, and they can instantly identify what information they will find on each page before they visit it, then you probably don’t need a search function.
But even if your website is only 10 pages, a search function can still help your visitors immediately find what they are looking for, instead of troubling them to click on three links before they get there on their own. Have you ever been on a website, looking for the most basic information — like hours of operation— but given the options of About Us, Products, News, and Directions, you can’t figure out where that might be? (From my own experience of clicking around with a frustrated look on my face, my guess is that it’s on the Directions page, but you never know.)
Okay, I’m sold. How do I do this?
There are a number of search service companies who specialize in creating custom search functions. Some are free and others are not. My personal favorite is Google’s Custom Search Engine (a free one!). People are used to viewing a Google search results page, and by using their Custom Search Engine product, you are basically placing their search results page inside your own website’s design, thus giving your visitors the experience they are used to, packaged by your brand. And you can customize the colors and fonts to match your site. Just visit www.google.com/cse to get started (you first need a Google account if you don’t already have one).
Where should the search function go?
Google will generate the code you need to place on your site for both the search function and the results page. You or your webmaster can easily incorporate this code into your site. You can drop the search box anywhere you’d like, but I recommend strategically placing it where visitors are used to finding it, in the upper right corner. Some sites simply have the word “Search” with a link to a page where they can then type in the term, but it is just as easy to paste the search box code right there instead, and save your visitors a step.
Don’t forget to place a copy of the search function on the results page, just above the results . When visitors want to perform a second search after viewing results, their eyes will have to do less work if the search box is right there. And we’re all about giving our visitors the best experience possible!
What if I don’t want Google ads to appear?
Google CSE automatically places ads on your results page — they are giving you a free tool, after all. But good news for non-profits — you can opt out of ad display at no extra cost! If you are a commercial enterprise, you can upgrade to the Google Site Search product for just $100/year to get ad-free results (well worth the small investment to maintain a more professional look and to keep visitors on your site instead of sending them to advertisers).
I have a search function; now what?
Once your search function is tested and running successfully, you can leave it to do its job and never think about it again. OR you can look for ways to make your site better. If you have Google Analytics implemented, you can track what terms your visitors are searching, and then use that data to your advantage (you’ll have to edit the settings to capture this data; just use “q” as your Query Parameter). Try making the sought-after information more easily accessible from the homepage or other pages from which the search originated, and see if those terms continue to come up in your tracking reports.
Do you use Google’s Custom Search Engine? Have any tips? Do you recommend other search tools? Please leave a comment!