Through years of UX research on traditional retail sites (including mass merchants like Amazon or Target, we’ve observed how on-site search is an incredibly popular and valuable resource for finding relevant products.
Unsurprisingly, when sites sell hundreds or thousands of different products, search often becomes users’ primary product-finding strategy over putting forth the time and effort to deliberately navigate the site’s (likely huge) product catalog to the appropriate category and apply the relevant filters.
However, during our testing of small-catalog, direct-to-consumer (DTC) sites, we observed that, far from being a primary product-finding strategy, users’ overall use of and concern with on-site search was entirely different — leading to major implications for DTC sites.
In this article, we’ll describe:
The unique product-finding behaviors we observed during testing of small-catalog DTC sites — and how it diverges from what we’ve observed on larger retail sites
How small DTC brands can facilitate users’ natural behaviors and virtually eliminate the need for on-site search altogether
During testing, 100% of users’ initial product-finding behavior was to utilize the site’s main navigation and browse the product catalog manually instead of turning to search (which was available on 23% of the test sites).
In fact, sites during testing were very rarely penalized for not having search: Only 15% of users on DTC sites ever looked for a search tool during testing, and — importantly — only did so after their primary strategy of browsing for products had failed.
With the flattened category taxonomy and smaller product catalog, users are likely to regard the category navigation method of product browsing on niche DTC sites as more approachable and easier to manage compared to larger and more complex retail sites.
Moreover, during testing, when search was available it tended to underperform in the few instances it was utilized.
Indeed, our benchmark of 26 DTC sites shows the average search performance to be merely “mediocre”, making it likely for users to have a poor search experience.
While users may be drawn to search on larger sites that are likely to appropriately invest in a robust and fully featured search tool, prior experience with poor quality or unoptimized search on other small retailers may dissuade users from relying on search for product finding.
Indeed, using search as a last resort when navigating or browsing has failed — only to be disappointed with no or low-quality results — may be a worse overall experience than if search is not offered at all.
Given the low usage rates observed in testing, as well as users’ observed behavior in reserving search as a fallback strategy, most niche DTC and small catalog retailers can safely deprioritize on-site search in favor of other UX investments.
Of course, this is not to say small retailers and DTC brands should never offer a conventional sitewide search tool; for a potential small subset of visitors, such a feature may be beneficial and even valuable, depending on the site’s content and user demographics and preferences.
For instance, brands that have an abundance of helpful auxiliary content, or an audience of discerning users likely to search for products with unique product features, may be well-served by an early investment in on-site search.
Additionally, once a brand expands beyond a very small and obvious catalog of product offerings, more users will begin to look for search as a means to find specific products they’re interested in, making it important to start supporting on-site search as a means to more efficiently navigate as the brand and its product offerings grow and diversify.
Yet it’s important to remember that, even for the largest retailers with an abundance of resources, on-site search is a complex feature that can be tricky to implement well — as evidenced by our benchmark of some of the highest-grossing ecommerce sites.
In practice, smaller and less-well-resourced sites can face an uphill battle in providing a high level of search support.
However, most niche, small-catalog DTC sites will get a better return on investment by prioritizing a solid navigation structure and other more universally impactful site features.
With a clear understanding of what is available on the site, users are likely to have fewer questions about what the brand offers and will be able to easily navigate to relevant products and nonproduct information.
Users may also turn to search when details for individual products are lacking, reasoning that search may be more efficient than carefully looking through product listings or details pages. In effect, search again becomes a fallback strategy when product information on the listing pages or product pages is unclear or incomplete.
Instead, providing as much rich product information, specifications, and descriptions as possible helps to support users’ primary browsing strategy and lessens the need for an on-site search tool.
Small-catalog niche brands can certainly develop robust search tools — but when resources are finite, prioritizing other more universally beneficial site elements is almost certain to be a better return on investment.
In particular, a clear navigation structure and robust product information should be prioritized.
Of course, after such site tools and elements have been perfected — or once the brand is able to expand its product offerings — sites may consider supporting on-site search as an additional benefit (and reference Baymard’s comprehensive research on on-site search for properly implementing this complex tool).
This article presents the research findings from just 1 of the 580+ UX guidelines in Baymard Premium – get full access to learn how to create a “State of the Art” on-site e-commerce search experience.
Authored by Kathryn Totz on September 21, 2021
Join 30,000+ UX professionals and get a new UX article every second week.