09/03/2010 09:38 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In a Complex World, Basics Are the Key to Effective Website Search

It's almost a thoughtless reflex when people visit a website. The first thing they often do is type a description of their heart's desire in the search box -- and hope for the best.

So, what kind of search results does your site provide?

Building an effective site search experience for your customers requires more than the latest technology. Don't get me wrong. Technology's critical -- but it's your business strategy that should inform the use of the technology, not the other way around.

At HP, we're constantly developing new technologies. But the first thing we consider is whether or not it can better enable our business strategy. Maybe it can do a lot of things, but the technology has to align with where we want to take the business.

Remember Your Business Basics
So, when trying to improve your site search, it's a good idea to remember the basics you learned in business school:

  • Know your customers
  • Define your business objectives
  • Use the right technology to accomplish both of the above
  • Continuously improve

Do you ever walk into your favorite coffee house and they've already started making your order -- because they know you? Sometimes you throw them off because you've decided to go with something else today. Next time, they may even ask first -- just to be sure.

Know Your Customers
That's how it should work when someone searches your site. You should know your customers -- especially your regulars. Be ready to offer up what they usually buy, but be ready with alternatives, too.

When someone types "batteries" in your site search engine, what do they mean? Batteries for their laptop? Batteries for their mobile device? Maybe they typed "batteries" but what they really want is a new power cord.

How do you know what they meant?

And what if your business objectives call for emphasizing a particular type of battery?

Technology's Role
This is where technology comes in -- it can help integrate user preferences with your business strategies. We're really talking about two types of technologies -- analytics and the search engine itself.

You need quality analytics, or metrics, that can tell you where a customer has gone previously on your site after entering certain terms in your search box. What you learn from those analytics allows you to tailor your search results to the needs of the user and your business goals.

You can then return search results based on facts, not on guesses.

So if your business plan calls for emphasizing certain types of batteries or battery-related items, you can provide a "we also recommend" section with your search results when someone types "batteries" in the search box.

It works for any type of business -- from diamond rings (Blue Nile) to vehicle tires (Tire Rack). Both sites provide excellent customized search options and results. They obviously know their customers -- and they can match what you're looking for with what they'd like to sell in that particular category.

But to get from analytics to tailored search returns requires a search engine that you can program and fine-tune.

At HP, we're in the midst of a corporate website redesign. We have a diverse range of products and services. And our customers are just as diverse -- moms, students, business people, retirees -- from all around the globe.

A company like ours obviously needs a powerful search tool to slice and dice our analytics in a way that provides a fruitful, satisfying journey for our customers -- while marrying that with our business direction.

The technology we have chosen processes our data and allows us to custom-build our search returns. It gives us the most flexibility to control the overall search quality. And after analyzing our metrics, we can use it to make adjustments in how search returns are presented.

But that's us. At the end of the day, your technology decisions still come down to the needs of your customers and your business plan.

So now you've got a read on your customers, a business plan and the right technology. You're still not finished. Just turning on your search engine and letting it run does no favors for your customers or your business.

Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement and quality management are important ingredients for an effective site search - and often overlooked. They're important because the way people search your site changes every day - as does the site content.

A dedicated search quality team -- or even just one person -- can analyze the search experience by stepping back from it. They can recognize trends, needed improvements, and missing or weak links between the search experience and your business strategies.

It's all about the basics -- putting into action a solid business plan to find and attract customers.