Search Optimization 101 – How do I know that my search is broken?

Search Optimization

Fun fact! Here at Supahands, we help our clients across various sectors improve the accuracy of the product search function on their websites by ensuring that all the products and listings that have been uploaded are tagged with the right set of labels – this step is a big part of the overall process called ‘Search Optimization’.

After a lot of conversations with potential partners, we realized that many businesses aren’t even aware of the fact that their search isn’t optimized, potentially robbing them of countless customer-engagement opportunities.

To help overcome this problem, we are partnering up with our friends at OpenSource Connections – the experts when it comes to Search Optimization – to help businesses make better decisions when it comes to Search Optimization. Today, we’re starting with the most important question – How do I know that my search is broken?


I’m Charlie Hull of OpenSource Connections and I’ve been helping companies build better search engines for twenty years. I’m going to help you find out if your search engine is broken – and perhaps help you fix it!

Unless you’re running a website with only a few pages, chances are you have a search engine of some kind. Just like Google or Bing, this will let your users type in a word or phrase and click a button (usually something that looks like a magnifying glass!). The result should be a list of items, hopefully in the right order, relevant to that word or phrase.

Unfortunately it’s not quite that simple – and worse, maybe your search is broken altogether, which can cost you users and traffic. In this blog I’m going to try and give you a list of things to check so you can make sure you’re giving the best search experience to your users. 

Fire up your site, click on that search box and let’s get started.

  1. Locate the search box. Before we start – is it easy to find that search box? Is it obvious that it’s a search feature? Does it have space for a few words? If your users can’t identify it as a search engine they may not use it at all.
  1. The basics. Type in something you know is on your website – ‘orange’ if you sell food, ‘manager’ if you run a recruitment website. Do the results look OK? Let’s not analyze things too much yet, but this is a first pass to check that your search engine works at all.
  1. Search speed. How quickly do results come back? If it’s anything more than a second or two then it might not be acceptable to users. Even Google with its billions of pages returns results pretty quickly.
  1. Check your spelling. Let’s try something we know is a deliberate misspelling of something that is definitely on your website. If you sell shoes, type in ‘bluu shoes’, if your website offers books, enter ‘teen fixtion’ – you get the idea. Make sure the correctly spelled version gives some results, obviously! What happens? Do you get offered a correct spelling instead, a ‘Did you mean….’ prompt? If you just give up and say that there’s no results for that search query, you’re not doing so well.
  1. Don’t go to zero. What happens if you type 8-10 random letters into the search box and click the button? Your search engine won’t have anything that perfectly matches this, obviously – but what does it do instead? Does it just say something like ‘I’m sorry there are zero results for that search’; and not give the user any further hints or help? If so, you’re not handling zero results.
  1. The perfect title match. Navigate to a page on your website and copy-and-paste the title of one of your articles or pages into the search box: so if there’s a page titled ‘The Best Way to Wash Socks’ copy exactly that into the search box. The first result for this search should be the article you copied from, right? If not, then there’s something going wrong.
  1. The perfect content match. Let’s try that again, but this time let’s copy the first few words of an article or description. Again, the first search result should be the same as where you copied the words from – if it’s not, then we have a problem. 
  1. Filter and facet. Type in something really general, like ‘socks’ or ‘car’ or ‘food’, that should give you lots of results. How do you narrow down this huge list? Do you show some categories on one side (for example different price ranges, or colours – in the search business we call these facets). If not, you can’t help users give you any more information about what kind of socks they want, or food they like. They’re stuck with that huge list of results.
  1. The right order. Let’s search for something you know exists on the website in multiple places (e.g. not something so specific that it will only have one or two results). Are the results in the right order? Where’s the best result in the list? If it’s not in the top three, then something isn’t working well.
  1. Get accurate. Repeat the search above. Are all of the results you see actually related to the search you entered, or are there a few that aren’t related at all? Why are they shown if they’re not relevant?

By now you should have a pretty good idea of whether or not your search engine is broken. You might have found some odd behaviour or some strange results. In my next post I’m going to discuss why some of these things might be happening and how you might begin to fix them.

……so what does it even mean when your search is ‘broken’? Find out here!

This piece was contributed by Charlie Hull from OpenSource Connections!


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