Impulse Buyers Are Browsers, Not Searchers

Many people recognize the importance of having a site-specific search engine. If visitors come to your web site, they aren't going to want to hunt through all your content to find what they are looking for. However, a new survey from User Interface Engineering finds that you are more likely to convert visitors into impulse buyers if you make your site's content easy to browse.

The study watched how 30 people shopped online. They were given money, allowed to make a shopping list, then directed to several web sites that offered the products they wanted. The study found that these people were far more likely to impulse buy items not already on their lists if they browsed through the site's content, rather than used its search engine.

Indeed, 87 percent of the money spent on impulse purchases were generated by those browsing the site. Browsers were also three times more likely than searchers to continue shopping for more items after they found the item they initially were looking for.

The study concluded that by allowing people to easily browse to a product they want, they were more likely to see others that they were interested listed alongside the original product or on the way to finding the original product.

What gets users to browse? Obviously, a browsable category structure needs to be in place. In addition, the site need to clearly display these categories to users. Yahoo would be a good example, where users see its various categories front and center on the home page. The study also illustrates ecommerce sites that seemed to work and those that didn't.

Don't neglect having a site search engine, however. The UIE study warns against driving people to the search engine by having bad design, but it doesn't say you shouldn't have site search at all. Another report from Forrester, a bit older but still useful, offers helpful information here.

The report was compiled from interviews with 50 ecommerce executives responsible their site search functionality. While search was found to be extremely important by many -- and considered very useful by about half -- the report found that upon closer examination, the quality of site search was lacking. The report then takes a close look at problem areas and suggests solutions.

URLs to both reports are below. The UIE one is free after you provide an email address. The Forrester one must be purchased, and this is probably worth doing by anyone already considering spending a thousands of dollars on a site search solution.

What Causes Customers To Buy On Impulse?
User Interface Engineering, May 2001˜uieweb/whitepaper.htm

Must Search Stink?
Forrester Research, June 2000,1338,9412,FF.html

Search Engine Software For Your Web Site

Some areas are woefully out of date -- I know. However, the articles section at the end has some additional recent stories on improving site search to convert buyers.

Search Tools

Comprehensive listings of software products, by platform or by name. There is also introductory material to search tools, product news and links to articles, resources and reviews. An outstanding resource for those interested in this topic. A must visit.

Why Searches Fail

From, this report looks at the top reasons why site search fails to serve users and suggests solutions, such as search engines that offer synonym lists, stemming, spellcheckers, don't use stopwords and other advice.

Search: Visible and Simple
Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox, May 13, 2001

Search boxes should be easy to locate, and if the first search fails to bring up what a user wants, the odds are they'll give up as further attempts are prone to failure.

Search: 29 Design Guidelines for Usable Search
Nielsen Norman Group, March 2001

I haven't reviewed this report, just out from Jakob Nielsen, but it's said to cover the usability of search at 20 ecommerce sites in the US. Search success rates were found to be low, and the US $45 report offers many guidelines to improving performance.