One of my pet peeves is webmasters which make it difficult for me to use their site. I mean, I'm there, looking at a page and I just cannot find what I want. I look everywhere for navigation, and what I want to find just doesn't seem to be covered. That's not necessarily a problem, as everything cannot be always be handled by navigation menus.
Okay, what's next thing I'm going to look for? A search box, a site map or some other, more general way to find information that I need. Site maps can be difficult to maintain unless they are very general (which, in turn, makes them less useful). Search boxes, on other hand, require no care and feeding at all once you've got them installed (although you should spend some time tuning them to make them even more useful).
If you have a site with a large amount of information or a site which is very diverse, a search box is your best bet.
- First of all, it allows your visitors to find things that they might not otherwise find.
- It causes visitors to go deeper into your site, to stay longer and to look around more.
- Just as important, very little maintenance is required.
- In addition, most of search utilities are free for small sites.
- The pay versions are extremely inexpensive for benefits they provide.
- It just makes your site (no matter how large or how small) look more professional.
Some of unexpected side effects include:
- You make it even more likely that your visitors can wind up on any page. This means your site navigation must be very good or your visitors will get lost.
- Visitors will find themselves dumped onto pages on your site which you did not intend for them to find. Under construction pages, "spam traps" and anything else you've got. Be sure to use metatags and Robots.Txt file to control indexing well.
You have several options when choosing a search box for your site.
- If you edit your site using Microsoft FrontPage, you could use built-in search functions. Note that searching facilities in FrontPage are so lame that personally I would not recommend them to anyone.
- You could use a self-hosted script if your host allows CGI routines. I would not recommend this method, as these routines tend to be very server intensive. In fact, most web hosts that I have found will not allow them to run.
- The best option is to use one of remotely-hosted search functions for your site.
I have found three excellent remotely-hosted search companies.
Atomz - Probably overall best of bunch, but also most expensive by far. I liked Atomz, but we switched because it just became too costly. Atomz allows up to 500 pages to be spidered for free, with advertisements in your results pages.
Freefind - Excellent service, and one that we settled on because it was very full functioned and inexpensive. The version for personal or nonprofit sites is only $19 per month, a year paid in advance. Up to 32mb of pages can be spidered for free.
Whatuseek - Another excellent service, allowing up to 1,000 pages to be spidered for free.
Each of these services has it's own advantages and disadvantages, but all of them work basically same. My recommendation is to try out all three services using their free versions to determine exactly which one is best for your needs. Then go ahead and purchase paid version for correct fit.
How does this all work? Well, once you sign you for an account you supply URL for your web site. You then define a template for results page, or you can use one of basic templates that each service provides. All three services allow you to define a template (in advanced mode) which looks exactly like your site. You then define any special parameters such as pages to exclude, usernames and passwords for protected pages and so on. Once that's done, you install search code on each of your web pages, then tell search utility to spider your site.
It's as simple as that. I fully tested each of three search companies in about an eight hour day before finally settling on one that best met requirements of my site.
Okay, so let's say you now have chosen a search function for your site, you've created perfect template and you've got your HTML code. What else do you need to do?
- Put search box in a very prominent spot on your site. The upper left-hand corner is by far most visible location, and it's a great choice. Make sure that it is at least "above fold".