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May 26, 2010 | 5 minute read

11 Tips for Advanced Search Usability

written by Linda Bustos

"Advanced search" means different things to different people. Some ecommerce vendors describe their filtered navigation or guided selling capabilities as advanced search, as does the Internet Retailer 500 Guide. This post considers "advanced search" to be a tool separate from the regular search function, that allows searchers to specify more detailed criteria that is not handled by keyword search or filtered navigation.

Advanced search is rare

Advanced search is rare in B2C ecommerce (aside from Book/DVD sellers). You'll find it more often on B2B sites, marketplaces with thousands of SKUs, or for specialized products.

For most ecommerce sites, filtered navigation is better for users than advanced search. Searchers can quickly scan available filter options and refine results without leaving the search results page. Because "Advanced Search" is often overlooked (a tiny text link), or avoided because it sounds difficult, more searchers will actually use the filtered navigation.

Filtered navigation has been around for years in ecommerce, and Google has recently added filters into its search results:

Do you need advanced search?

Though filtered navigation typically covers what advanced search is supposed to do, there are cases your business might require advanced search in addition to filters:

1. If your filtered navigation can't accommodate all the things your advanced search must do.
2. If an advanced search function is table stakes in your industry. Not offering what your customers are used to forces them to learn a new process, which may hurt your site's effectiveness.
3. If a guided, stepped process where the options are configured at once (rather than one-by-one with filtered navigation) makes the most sense (e.g. when your customer is "hunting" vs. "browsing").

Advanced search usability tips

1. Remember, you don't have to name it "Advanced Search"

Unless your industry demands "Advanced Search," you can soften the label like Orbitz' "Expand search options," sounds more useful than complicated:

Orbitz appends "Expand search options" with examples of what to expect from it (preferred airlines, first/business class, etc.)

2. Provide instructions

Most people will gloss over text, but a brief description of how your advanced search works can be helpful. Keep instructions as concise as possible, and link to more information if necessary. Avoid hijacking searchers to a new page or pop up window to get detailed instructions by using Javascript hover effects or "plus-box" expand/collapse, like Lexis Nexis:

After expanding, you can collapse "Hide Search Tips":

You can also explain individual search criteria with mouseover, like Travelocity:


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3. Explain jargon

AbeBooks understands only the geeky will know what "Boolean Search" means, and provides an explanation link:

4. Test a stepped process

Like the checkout process, numbering steps may help searchers through the advanced search process. It may also hinder by adding to the perceived difficulty of the form (it really depends on how your advanced search tool is designed). It's a good idea to test this to see what works best for you.

5. Don't style Cancel or Reset buttons alike

Careless Web users can easily wipe out their inputs by hitting the wrong button when they look exactly the same and are given the same visual "weight."

AbeBooks in example 3 does it much better, styling the Find Book button differently than the Clear Fields link.

6. Choose button labels carefully

This example uses "Search" and "Continue Shopping." It's not clear if "Continue Shopping" means abandon advanced search or continue.

7. Let users know what's required vs. optional input

You can do this by separating optional criteria into its own section:

Or by using radio buttons for mandatory items and checkboxes for optional (this is a web convention):

8. Don't use too many "Go" buttons

"Go," "Search," "Submit" - the label doesn't matter. Showing too many buttons makes it confusing and is unnecessary. Stick to one at the end of the form.

Remember, your Go/Search/Submit button is a call-to-action, and button color, shape and size affects conversion. This applies to advanced search submission as well, so test out different button designs:

9. Consider different categories may require different advanced search design

Amazon recognizes that books have different search attributes than magazines, music, classical music, DVDs and toys/games. So, it offers slightly different advanced search forms for each. You can toggle between them from the same page. Here are a couple examples:

The attributes for books are different than those for classical music:

And classical music to those from movies/DVDs:

While this is significantly more work, it may be suitable for your business if it reduces the "noise" of having one form that tries to accommodate everything.

10. User test

While you can certainly conduct A/B or multivariate testing, there are reasons why user testing with a small sample of your target customers is better for advanced search.

First, if your advanced search is rarely used, it could take years before you find a statistically significant winner.

Second, advanced search functionality is more complex to design and code than a simple home page layout or cart button design. You want to test the usability of the advanced search process, not just the impact of design elements or copy on conversion. User testing with a small sample of your target customers will help you identify major gaps in usability, and give you insight on what to "fix" or what features to add. Have users test your existing tool against competitors' or other sites' advanced search. This saves redesign and development resources in early stages until you understand where users are succeeding vs. failing.

11. Offer saved searches

While this is an advanced feature, it's very helpful for B2B ecommerce sites and products that have longer days-to-purchase cycles.

Because advanced search is one of the most difficult pieces of an ecommerce site for users to figure out, if it's essential to your business, it's essential to invest in advanced search usability.