The company I work for, SLI Systems, specializes in site search—searching products or content within a single website. That’s all we do. For example, try searching Search Engine Land using the SLI-powered search box at the top of the page (but wait until you finish reading this article first!). As a result of our focus, we pay a great deal of attention to the trends taking place in site search and within the entire search industry. Over the years, site search and web search have evolved—often independently of each other—leading to new search innovations. Recently, however the lines between site search and web search have begun to blur with more approaches being shared in an effort to streamline the user experience.
Regardless of the approach, web search and site search are working with the same information. Web search is attempting to index all of the information on the web, whereas site search is indexing just the information on the site it is searching—a tiny subset of the information web search is using. Web search mainly relies on crawls, but may also be using XML sitemaps, feeds (i.e. shopping feeds) and other techniques. Site search has access to all the structured data on the site and is able to use that to create a richer search experience tailored to the site’s content.
Each type of search has a number of teams working to improve the user experience. On the web, we have major search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing, while on the site search front there are millions of website owners producing content and working to make it searchable on their individual sites. Some of those teams are small, while some are significant, as in the case of well-known sites such as eBay or Amazon. Innovation is taking place in both areas and each tends to influence the other.
The most common links between the two search experiences are the users and their expectations, which change as their search experiences do. The more relevant the search results they receive via web search, the more relevant they expect the site search results to be on any given site. As they become accustomed to refinements and reordering options in site search they come to expect similar features in web search.
The web site owner has more intimate access to meta data associated with each page on their site than a web search engine does. For example, on an ecommerce product page, they know the images associated with each product, the available colors, the category, the price, the availability, average ratings, whether or not it is available with free shipping and the sales history. For an article, they know the author(s), the date it was published, the category, the number of comments, the number of times it has been viewed, any images that are included in the article, etc. All of this information can be used to create a much richer site search experience than a web search engine is able to do when it is simply crawling pages, such as offering refinements by price, category, color or manufacturer. Users can sort by price, publish date or ratings. Site owners can ensure that out of stock items aren’t shown in the search—or are shown below those that are in stock.
One area where site search has influenced web search is ratings. Ratings and reviews were pioneered by Amazon and are now a standard feature available on most ecommerce sites. We saw this trend taking place in 2007 and began integrating ratings and reviews into site search for our customers. Most ecommerce sites do this now. Currently, we are seeing web search engines offer the same rating functionality. Bing, for example will show ratings in their shopping search, while Yahoo has its SearchMonkey that will show restaurant and other ratings.
An example of where web search has influenced site search is search term completion tools. This is the functionality available on all the major web search engines now that shows users suggested search terms as they are typing. We began offering this to our clients in July 2008 and it is now a very common feature on site search, particularly for ecommerce sites.
A new area of web search and site search convergence is around searching different types of content—e.g. product information, articles, blogs, forums, information pages, store locators, videos, etc. Web search engines take an approach like Google’s universal search, where they will mix different types of results into the main search results and provide tabs or other links that allow users to see only certain information—for example just video results. Website search owners are grappling with various interfaces to ensure all of the content on their sites can be found through their site search and presented on the web in a way that is consistent with the expectation of their users.
So what does the continued union between site search and web search mean for you? As a website owner you must ensure the experience your visitors have when using your site search, at the very least meets their expectations. Talk to your visitors to find out what they want and watch what they search for. Take the time to consider what you think would be the ultimate site search experience for your visitors, given what you know about your business and the content on your site. You may just come up with something innovative that will contribute to the ongoing search revolution.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.