Using a selection of specific criteria I’ll be gauging how some of the top US retailers handle on-site search. 

The search tool is perhaps the most common way for shoppers to navigate an ecommerce site, so therefore its effectiveness is paramount in directing highly motivated visitors, who know exactly what they’re looking for, around your site.

In this investigation we’ll be looking at important search elements such as box design, auto-suggestion, mobile optimisation, effective synonym management, presentation of results, filters and overall effectiveness for US retailers Walmart, Costco and Target.

There is also a UK version of this post looking at John Lewis, Marks and Spencer and Debenhams.

Search Box Design

The search box should be consistent across all pages of the site, avoiding significant usability problems and be positioned away from any other text-boxes.

Walmart’s search box is large, centred and clearly defined. It also remains in the same exact same position wherever you navigate. 

Target’s is much smaller, but still centred at the top of the page. It is perhaps slightly lost being so close to the edge of the header and next to a similar strip of white, however it remains in place throughout the journey.

Costco’s is the smallest search box of the three, but it’s in a good position and the height makes it feel less fiddly than Target’s. This may be a personal preference but the white search field which softly transitions into the blue works better than Target’s stark white against red. Again it remains in position throughout the journey.

Auto-suggest

Automatic suggestions should appear after a visitor types several letters into a search box based on commonly searched key-phrases including common misspellings and abbreviations.

Walmart’s most popular results appear after three characters, irrelevant of where they appear in the word.

It also handles my misspelling of vacuum very well.

Target has a similarly effective search… 

But fails when it comes to handling misspellings.

Costco’s search provides two different sets of predicted results, products and departments, which the other two retailers fail to provide. However the results displayed are for results that begin with those letters. This also means it fails in picking up misspellings.

Mobile-friendly design

The search box should adapt to work on any mobile device and screen size, and remain easily accessible throughout the journey.

None of the retailers have either a responsive or adaptive website. Instead each operates a separate mobile set.

The search tools featured on Walmart and Target’s mobile sites are clearly in place on the homepage.

With the search box disappearing behind the magnifying glass symbol when navigating further on both sites.

Costco’s on the other hand remains throughout the mobile journey.

Effective synonym management

Search boxes should have the ability to manage alternate terms so that several different keyphrases can trigger the same set of search results (for instance: singular & plurals, earphones/headphones).

All three retailers forgive my pluralising of notebook.

Presentation of search results

The total number of results are shown along with the search term and product images.

Walmart’s total result figure could be displayed more prominently and in a clearer font or text colour. The search term is highlighted in bold within the name of each result, where the images are nice and large.

Target makes it abundantly clear how many results are displayed and the search term used. Its results are displayed horizontally across the screen, which is great for browsing, but lack the detail of Walmart’s images.

Although similar to Target, Costco’s page design is perhaps more subtle.

Filter search results

Search results can be sorted and filtered by category, product, price etc.

Walmart has filters for price, brand and store availability, with a separate sort tool which allows you to order the results in numerous ways.

Target has a detailed selection of filters on the left-hand side, with options to sort along the time. Missing from Walmart’s results but featured here are options to increase the size of images and amount of results per page.

Costco again has similar functionality as Target, but with less invasive text.

Search effectiveness

All relevant products are shown in the search results along with any other relevant content or help pages.

Although none of the brands serve much more in the way of additional content, each one delivers all possible results. Walmart however is the only one that realises I could mean either a paper notebook or a computer, so serves me a selection of possibly relevant landing page links at the top of the page.

Nil search results

Messaging should be given for nil search results with suggested alternative search terms or products. 

It’s impossible to find anything that Walmart either doesn’t stock or have listed. Even ‘Elvis Trousers’.

Searching for ‘Elvis trousers’ on Target provides me with these impressively relevant products.  Although no trousers weirdly.

At Costco I tried ‘Yorkshire Tea’ as I thought it might at least serve me with other tea products that it does stock. Unfortunately no. 

In conclusion

Walmart has an excellent search tool, it’s well positioned and provides relevant results. It’s almost faultless, but perhaps predicted results could be segmented further in the drop down box.

In terms of search results pages though, I prefer products to be horizontal across the page just so you can see more of them. Then again Walmart’s product images are large and attractive so do encourage click through.

Target has a small amount to improve, but it does have excellent results pages with clear tools to filter and sort. Just a more consistent approach to aesthetic design, in terms of text size and colour choices, would make things much better.

Costco has a lot to improve with its predicted search results. It should include misspellings and be a lot more intuitive when it comes to flexibility. The search results pages are fine however, and the filters are good, but it takes some unnecessary difficulty in finding them.

Econsultancy’s Digital Transformation team helps companies identify the gaps between where they are now and where they need to be, and then closes them. 

Whether you need to re-engineer every process and skillset, or simply move to a new technology platform, we’ll work closely with you to develop a completely bespoke programme, addressing on the way.

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 12 February, 2015 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Geraint Martin, e-commerce manager at Leekes Ltd

The Walmart owned UK based supermarket Asda has by far the worst search of any of the big supermarket chains. Don't take my word for it, try it for yourself: http://groceries.asda.com/asda-webstore/landing/home.shtml . Perhaps Walmart should apply some of their US insight to their UK operation.

almost 3 years ago

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