Big banks slammed for poor website search functions – but is yours any better?

Businesses must ensure the search functions on their sites are operating properly and thoroughly or they will risk losing customers, SEO experts have warned.

The warning comes after a report from Forrester Research indicates the websites of the big four banks are failing to produce acceptable search results for users, with many being taken to irrelevant or poorly designed results pages.

Forrester analyst Steven Noble says the firm used a particular method to compile the ‘Web Site User Experience’ report. The firm determines a number of situations where a user would be searching for something, then attempted to undertake that search on the target website and then recorded the results.

Noble says the big four banks failed in a number of areas, with one of the biggest problems being that users are often given totally irrelevant results to the search terms they are using. Noble says this has been the case for the past decade.

“It’s worth mentioning that ever since we’ve started these reviews, and we’ve made over 1,000 of them, the clear majority have been failures. It’s more common than not to fail, and it’s quite disappointing.”

Noble says the websites do not practice solid design, and are often put together in such a way that is confusing and distracting. Additionally, he says search terms must be put to use in such a way that will deliver solid, relevant pages.

“In a good result, the user is left with no doubt. They can navigate search results and each point helps them achieve their goal. There is also efficient task flow, they can complete the search tasks without being distracted.”

“There are other criteria we are using in the test, but search is the one that comes up again and again for the banks as being a problem. Take that to another site, and it could be something different, but for the banks the search functions are the key here.”

Chris Thomas, chief executive of SEO firm Reseo, says businesses must devote significant amounts of resources to developing internal search functions, otherwise they will risk having users leave their site altogether.

“That is the biggest risk you face if your internal search isn’t good enough. But there are tools you can use, one of which is Google’s own system, which can be styled up, but the issue with that is that it takes a few days for the Google internal search to index all the pages. But it does a good job.”

“The second system, which is what sites like Dick Smith use, are what we call an SLI system. Search terms can be built out for when other people search for those terms… there is a whole heap of information online about how to utilise all that.”

Thomas also says optimising internal search will enable companies to adapt to new search terms and then take advantage of them.

“For Melbourne Airport, we found a lot of people were typing in “swine flu” or more recently “volcano”, due to the eruption in Iceland. We can look at those search terms, and then we reported back to the client and told them what was going on. Then they put a button on the site so users could learn more.”

“For businesses, the big three that you would see are jobs, careers and employment. But occasionally you have these trends and it’s good to be on top of them.”

Jim Stewart, chief executive of Stewart Media, says he often uses Google to search sites rather than use internal search mechanisms because it is often far more powerful and comprehensive.

“I’m constantly dismayed by internal search on large sites. Especially when you’re in a competitive space, people don’t want to hang around if they’ve come from Google. If they can’t find what they want, they’ll leave. It’s important to deliver users what they are looking for.”

The Forrester report suggests using a “user-centric” search design, recommending companies identify who exactly is using their site and for what purpose.

Additionally, the firm has said companies must “design an emotional experience, not just a service” and “plan for the future customer experience” by including social networking trends.

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