Unfortunately for online shoppers, bad search is more common than you might think. And if you routinely visit merchant sites with great to fairly-good search, finding a bad search is all the more noticeable – and frustrating.

When you search for an item that absolutely should be found, such as balloons on a party supply website or a baseball mitt on an athletic goods store and those searches return irrelevant or no results, it is a clear indication that the search function isn’t finely tuned. These days, customers are becoming even more fickle because they’ve experienced great search and are easily turned off by a bad experience.

According to user experience research posted by usability expert Jakob Nielsen, in a study of users’ within-site queries, their first search was successful only 64 percent of the time. Furthermore, when users could not find the item, instead of reformulating their search, they often assumed the site did not carry the item and left the site. Even for those who still think you carry the item, it’s a frustrating experience if their search doesn’t give them the results they were expecting. As you can see, bad site search can have lasting impact on not only the specific sale, but also on customers’ perception of what types of products you carry or do not, and what type of business you’re running.

Irrelevant Results

Some bad searches will ultimately return the product, but will also have other irrelevant or ancillary products intermingled in with results. If, for example, you search the term “pants” on the US Demandware-powered athletic clothing website www.lucy.com, the results page shows five shirts or jackets, before pants appear as a result. And further down in the search results, there are additional shirts, dresses, sports bras shown higher than some pants. Instead, the most relevant results should be at the top.

A search for “pants” shows six shirts before displaying the first images of pants.

In other cases, some searches don’t even display search results for items that are clearly stocked on the website an example is the Australian retail website www. davidjones.com.au, when you search for denim you get a “non-merchandised” no results page, which given that they have denim as one of their category pages is a pretty bad user experience.

Now both of these examples do follow a lot of the best practices for site search. They have clear images, plenty of filters and sort options, integration with reviews, add to cart information and more. However both searches have poor relevance. This is difficult to get right, but it’s vital.

It may seem like the simplest concept and one that isn’t as important as flashy graphic design, the latest multimedia widgets or the other website bells and whistles that may seem like a priority. But if your customers can’t find what they’re looking for, no amount of cool features will make them stay. Your site’s search is the foundation of a good user experience. It is therefore vital to make sure you have a finely-tuned, learning solution that will deliver highly-relevant results time and again.