Many of today’s ecommerce platforms offer the ability to create and curate type-ahead lists within the search box, some even including thumbnail images in addition to text. As the capabilities of the internet and Google make things easier and easier for the user, it is critical for anyone running a website with a search box to have a well-developed and fined tuned type-ahead.
So how does one go about configuring type-ahead? Of course the abilities and limitations of your search and web platforms need to be taken into consideration, but your number one source of information when considering type-ahead is going to be your search logs. A good type-ahead not only considers top searches but considers what they mean and what they don’t mean, which can be translated into a curated list of categories, products, and popular searches. But in fact including top searches in the type-ahead suggestion list is not critical, as counterintuitive as that may seem.
The main purpose of type ahead in a website search box environment is to show the user a short list of search results even before the search is performed. This way the user can be lured in to choosing one of many good options even before they have completed their search. This paves the way for more discoverability in addition to better findability, and doesn’t dumb down the search box to just an autocomplete tool. While users may appreciate the autocomplete function of type ahead, autosuggest provides much more depth to the experience, especially if you are in an ecommerce environment.
For example, a user searching for a Gibson guitar on GuitarCenter.com will immediately see many Gibson guitars to choose from by just typing “gi”, and also have the option of selecting Gibson as a simply as a brand or choosing to complete their original search for Gibson guitars. Conversely, on MusiciansFriend.com, the user is given the option of several different Gibson Guitar categories to choose from when beginning the same search, such as “Gibson Custom Acoustic Guitars” or “Gibson Electric Guitar Strings”.
The best approach to type-ahead will in fact be a blend of these two experiences. You want to show the user some highlighted products which could be populated based on sales data or merchandising objectives, but you also want to give the user the ability to select one of your curated categories from the taxonomy. Also included in the type ahead index can be custom landing pages or promotional pages if you wish, the sky’s the limit. Providing a list of top searches that match on the user’s query can also helpful, but is not as critical as the previous two. A better leveraging of the third grouping of type-ahead suggestions would be related categories, such as Gibson Guitar straps or picks. If you are going to include top searches in your type-ahead, make sure they are a curated list and not simply automatically generated from search logs, to avoid duplicates such as singulars and plurals, misspellings, and different forms of the same term(s).
While Google and other web search engines use type-ahead primarily for completing user queries and displaying top searches, a site search box on a website can do so much more with its internal content, and create a unique custom experience that can even include thumbnails or other media content. The suggestions list can further be stratified into deeper search results, such as the case on HomeDepot.com. A list of suggested searches is given with top results for each as the user hovers over them. They are shown with thumbnail images, providing even greater depth to the user experience and increasing discoverability.
In today’s seemingly mind reading environment, having a well-designed and curated type-ahead is critical to the success of any website with a search box. In particular, ecommerce sites need to go beyond simply autocomplete and correcting user queries, by also matching on products, categories, and other indexed pages to show the user immediately what is available, and hopefully show something they wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. User search logs need to be deeply analyzed and integrated into the type-ahead so that the experience feels customized and not just automatically populated by the search platform. Get to know your users even better and increase their loyalty by showing them you have their interests in mind from the first moment they start to look for something on your site!
*NB: The Earley website currently does not have type-ahead due to it's purpose and market. Type-ahead is critical for any ecommerce website or other B2C site selling specific products. It is not as critical for other types of sites such as B2B, as queries and results tend to be more varied and abstract. However we are currently working on a site redesign that will include type-ahead/auto-complete in the site search box to demonstrate this functionality to our customers.