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Optimizing Search Features inside Your Mobile App

Search for Mobile Apps - A Blog Series

Kristy Martin
Kristy Martin
Functional & Industry Analytics Consultant

"We did not invent smartphones. We simply decided mobile experiences matter. We love mobile experiences. We love them because they empower people." - Greg Nudelman

As the prevalence of smart phones and tablets continues to grow, more people are turning to their mobile devices to obtain the answers they need. And now that Google has indexed 100 billion links within mobile apps, when users search and click on results, they can launch a mobile app, thus promoting and retaining the search experience entirely within the mobile sphere.

When your business has a content-rich or e-commerce centric mobile app, providing a good search experience within the app is just as important as performing search engine or on-site search optimization.  

If your users can't find what they need in your mobile app, here's why.


I already have a search box in my mobile app, so I’m done, right?

Not quite. Offering a search box and offering a successful, robust search experience in your mobile app that will make your users feel great and generate loyalty to your brand are two very different animals.

Encouraging your users to engage with and stay within your mobile app requires careful consideration when it comes to designing the search experience. If users can’t find the answers they need, they will go elsewhere. This translates to lost conversion rates in click-throughs and sales and in cases of users needing customer support, increases in helpdesk calls and associated costs.

You want to help your users find products and support quickly. You want to empower your users. Building and maintaining robust and supportive search features inside your mobile app will do that.


Okay, so a search box won’t cut it; how do I give my users a better search experience?

Improving your mobile app search experience can seem overwhelming, but here are some first steps you can take.


STEP 1 - Search needs to be simple

Open your app and give your search experience a good once-over, then ask yourself these questions.


Is it simple?

search in mobile appsYou need a clearly defined search input field where the customer knows s/he can tap to enter text and a clearly understood symbol for search; the magnifying glass is one of the most common icons. When people see that icon, they know they’ve found the search box. Your user should not have to go on a scavenger hunt to locate the search box. And once the results are presented, don’t cram every possible thing into the small screen space.


Are you answering questions when possible?

Mobile users, like desktop users, often use search to find answers to questions. While engine architecture and indexing for search in mobile apps is different than engine architecture for desktop/web applications (one example, deep links utilizing URIs rather than URLs), the basic considerations are the same. Your search index should contain ample product information and answers to questions found in FAQs, knowledge bases, and community forums. Answers that have been indexed as individual entities help people find answers right on the search results page.

Our Chief Architect, Paul Nelson, has a wonderful blog article that discusses the rise of question answering systems (“insight engines”), what they are, and why they’re growing in popularity. Take a look to see why empowering your users to find their own answers is really the direction to take.


Do the results make sense for my search?

Relevancy is king. Putting thought into results relevancy is essential to meeting the needs of your users. Irrelevant results, inconsistent results across search sessions, or the need to scroll and tweak queries will result in frustrated users and uninstalled apps.

Relevancy can be determined using a variety of methods, including log-based analysis using a tool such as Google analytics, manual review and engine scoring by Search Analysts and Subject Matter Experts, and surveys to request user feedback. In general, to ensure you’re monitoring search engine performance and user satisfaction, a combined approach is often the best approach.


Speaking of scrolling, do you have to?

Consider this scenario: you have dropped your phone on the hard concrete and the screen has cracked into a spider web of despair. But luck shines on you, and the phone still runs just fine. You tap the app icon of your cell provider and search on: "I cracked my screen."

Is the information you need to get your screen fixed the very first thing you see? Or, do you have to swipe and swipe (hoping you won’t get splinters) until you finally find your answer on the third swipe?

Provide the best answers to your users and load them at the top. If you drop your phone, you want to be told exactly what to do with the least amount of effort. Do this for your users, help them in their time of need, and you will have earned good will and brand loyalty.


STEP 2 - Optimize your content

Think about the content stored in your search index. Are there common fields found across all records? Are there record-specific fields not being indexed that are causing these records to not be returned in a search? You don’t want a bloated index that contains every conceivable piece of data related to a record, yet you want to make sure that you’ve captured and indexed all field data that will lead to relevant results being presented to your user.

A deep dive into your top queries and zero-result queries can help guide you into what your users are looking for and what terms they’re using that get them no returns. This insight will lead you into designing your mobile app to provide the best search experience you can. For a deep-dive into a practical roadmap for improving e-commerce search, register for our free webinar.

If your mobile app users keep searching for “cart,” they’re probably trying to find their shopping cart. Maybe your shopping cart icon is hard to find, so they want to search for it. Implement a URI to help users find their cart within your mobile app.

Another consideration is mobile-only content. Content that is great on the desktop might not be so great on a small device. Think about implementing tagging content for desktop, mobile, or both. That said, hardware and performance are ever improving so content, like videos that were once the bane of the mobile device, are growing in popularity. 

mobile app search components


STEP 3 - Leverage native capabilities to engage directly with users

The mobile devices of today offer so many powerful tools that many of us interact with on a daily basis: geo-location, notifications, and voice recognition, to name a few. These native capabilities can be designed to connect with your users and bolster their search experience inside your mobile app. 


Stores near me

Customers frequently browse content online for days or weeks before going to a store to buy the product. Buying in-store means each store needs to keep a certain level of stock on hand, whereas online purchases can be fulfilled at less cost from a centralized distribution center. Businesses have to walk that fine line between keeping their customers happy and minding their revenue. 

The solution is to give the user the product knowledge they need to feel confident in making a choice and then tell them where to go to take it for a test drive.

As the user moves around town, leverage their recent search criteria and their geo-location information to notify the user they are near a store that has a recently searched for product available to try (and possibly buy).

Requesting current location has become industry standard; users expect this as a matter of protecting their privacy while using your app.


Search-driven notifications

Most mobile apps take advantage of pushing notifications to their users. Take it a step further and start designing notifications to alert users to new app content that meets their recent search criteria. For example, when a user searches for "what to do with a cracked screen," customize their notifications to notify them of sales on new devices or cases based on their search criteria and the device they’re using to search.


Speech interaction

Gone are the days where the user plugged in one or two query terms, e.g., retirement planning, then scoured the list of results to find the one result they needed. Now, users want to ask questions. With mobile operating systems’ native voice capabilities, users can speak to their phone to get answers, and they’re more likely to phrase their search in the same manner as they speak:

  • “How do I plan for retirement?”
  • “How much do I need to save for retirement?”
  • “When can I retire?”

Make sure your app supports natural language searches. It’s as simple as that.

As a corollary, consider your technology roadmap for implementing audio feedback for your users. Your user takes an action or asks a question, and the app provides audio feedback. On initial thought, you might not like the idea of your phone making noise, but consider the up-and-comers to the mobile market: your kids. They’ve grown up on tablets and playing app games. They’re more likely to accept their device talking back to them. Also, the older generation with busy lives and visual challenges could find value in audio feedback. 


What else can I do?

What we’ve discussed has only skimmed the surface of what can be done to move you from just having a search box in your app to providing a “best in breed” search experience for your mobile app users. There are more advanced topics of discussion, such as tagging queries to control the UI to providing smart query suggestions.

Contact us for more best practices on optimizing search features for your mobile app! 

Learn how to implement Query Tagging and Query Suggestions to improve search experience for your app users in our second post of the Search for Mobile Apps series.

-- Kristy