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Jul 11, 2007 | 5 minute read

Shipping Policy Usability - Results Not Found!

written by Linda Bustos

Ecommerce can be a crazy messed up world indeed. The Elastic Path team recently produced a series of e-commerce shorts including my personal favorite: "Zero Results Found." Because art imitates life, and search box failures are all too common on even the most sophisticated ecommerce sites, I decided to start my own series on ecommerce search, beginning with how easy (or difficult) is it to find non-product information.

When comparison shopping, you can compare prices and find a store selling an item for a dollar less than everyone else (for example). But it's possible that another store sells the exact item for a bit more yet is significantly cheaper to ship, even free. So a savvy consumer would be interested in comparing shipping policies between etailers, as would an international shopper. If the searcher is "search dominant" (as opposed to a menu-browser), he or she is going to head straight for that little white rectangle to find the desired information.

I have suspicion that most ecommerce websites don't think outside the box when it comes to site search. I expect that many overlook including non-product information in their search databases also (privacy information, FAQs, return policies etc). Choosing a few sites from the list of top etailers of 2006, I set out to discover how easy, or difficult, it would be to find shipping information using the site search box.

First I brainstormed a few ways one might describe shipping information:

    • shipping info
    • shipping policy
    • shipping policies
    • shipping charges
    • shipping rates
  • delivery

Then I headed over to the sites to see what I could (or couldn't) find. My first test was simply searching for "shipping." If a site returned the shipping policy, I tried the rest of the terms, to see if the site had programmed the database to match the shipping page to the variations above., the darling of web usability (praised by Steve Krug, Seth Godin, Jakob Nielsen and others) carries a lot of products for sale related to the keyword "shipping," but anticipates that some searchers might be looking for their policies, and includes links to related searches: free shipping, shipping charges and shipping rates. It passed "shipping policy," "shipping information" and even "delivery" but failed "shipping info." gets an "A+" for providing a relevance score for my "shipping" query, with the page I wanted coming in at 99.85% relevance (because there's always a chance I'm looking for Scooby Doo and the Sunken Ship). passed on all queries but shipping info, shipping rates and delivery, which returned a cute Roxy bag, but wasn't what I was looking for.

The search box on BassPro gives you two search options: Product Search and Article Search. My first instinct was to search articles, because I associated that term with regular site content. But I got a list of actual articles, no policies. Interestingly enough, the Product Search delivered the Customer Service page. Scanning the menu, it was very unclear which option was hiding the shipping information, but I took a chance on "The Fastest Way To Find Answers To Customer Service Issues" (a mouthful that could be better labelled FAQs).

When I clicked through, I found a "summary" with 6 pages of items! There were a few shipping options: Catalog/Internet Shipping Charges; Shipping Information/Tracking Numbers; Shipping Methods; International Shipping and International Delivery. I didn't bother to check out results pages 2 through 6, I was already wondering where to go first. This menu came with a dropdown search box that had a category for "Shipping Information" so I selected that, and a submenu appeared with "Delivery Time," "Restrictions" and "Shipping Charges." Typing in "Shipping Policy" brought up a number more specific options, but not a universal policy which I was looking for. I was in no mood to check out each item individually.

Liz Claiborne, Linens N Things and are examples of sites that failed for every keyword combination, although both sites offered shipping information in their footer menus. Others like Bloomingdale's matched "shipping policy" and "shipping" but not words that didn't appear in the document.

Sometimes the design and planning can be done well, but the actual programming can fail. Walmart's search box offers two options: Entire Site and Help. Searching for "shipping" using the "Help" option delivered 647,019 results -- potentially the entire product database. "Shipping policy" returned 2,938, mostly books about public policy. This is simply a bug in the search engine design, as "returns" worked great with the Help option, so I imagine the site intended to include shipping policies in the Help area, but for whatever reason it's not working. Is this a huge issue? Probably not for Shipping, as it's easily found in the footer menu. A more serious problem is when a popular or high margin product fails in search, one that's not prominent in site navigation on its own.

I found HomeClick's error message a bit funny: "Did you mean Shopping Policy?" NorthernTool also had some funky suggestions: "Did you mean shipping polish?"

The best search engines by far were on and J.Jill. They not only passed all my shipping variations, but also misspellings and even made up variations like "shiping sushi" and "Chuck Shipping Norris." Go ahead and try if you don't believe me, enter "shipping + {anything}" it'll land on the right page! Works for "returns" and "exchanges" too.

While checking out various shipping policies, I gleaned a few more keywords related to shipping that were not tested:

    • Shipping methods
    • Shipping restrictions
    • Shipping cost
    • Shipping costs
    • Order tracking
    • Shipping and tracking
    • Shipping time/s
    • Shipping speed
    • Shipping options
    • Shipping to multiple addresses
  • International shipping

Next post I'll provide some tips for optimizing your site search with regards to non-product information.