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Some sites are like haystacks and others are like cheese platters. Haystack firms offer complex services and a ton of content—and they benefit from smarter search tools. Cheese platter firms have several core offerings that are clearly laid out and easy to understand—and they don’t need complicated search tools.

Deciding whether or not to include search functionality on your site comes down to two key factors: how complicated your website is and how informed your users are.

Finding a needle in a haystack is a lot easier with a magnet. Search is the magnet that helps a user find what they need in a haystack of content—but this comes with additional challenges. How do you make sure the magnet doesn’t also uncover stray nails? 

If your site is more like a cheese platter, you don’t need to over-engineer the search process. It should be obvious to users what you offer. They’re on your site because they know they like cheese and they just need help picking one.

Done correctly, search can empower your online visitors and streamline their experience, resulting in happier users and more leads. Done incorrectly, search can frustrate users and send them to your competitors.

Let’s break down which law firms need search and how to build a valuable search experience.

Larger, complex websites should definitely include search capability

Let’s start with a foundational truth: Your user’s needs should dictate how you design your search capability.

If you’re a firm with a larger, complex website, then you probably have a ton of valuable subpages, resources and blog entries. However, the landing page of your site might provide a simplified overview. 

Search functionality can help users quickly find the treasure trove of content buried on bigger sites without forcing them to wade through lengthy navigation menus

This is especially valuable for forms in specialized practice areas such as tax law or employment law. For these firms, your online visitors may arrive at your site with more clear and specific queries. 

To sum up, if your user already knows what they’re after, it’s in your best interest to help them find it ASAP—and search functionality can be the fastest way to help users find what they need in a jam-packed website.

Smaller, simpler websites may not need to include search capability

If your website includes a total of five to seven pages, and all the pages are listed neatly in your navigation menu, then you may not need search capability.

Here’s the thing about search. Searching requires that your user knows what they’re searching for. 

Using a website should require as little effort as possible for users. A simple site is no less valuable than a complicated site. 

Do you offer basic services and your menu is clear? Fantastic! Your user will be able to use the menu to find what they need within 1-2 clicks, with no need to formulate a query and dig around. 

The truth is that browsing has a lower interaction cost than searching and typing. So if you can help someone find what they need within a menu, you’re avoiding a ton of possible problems. Most site searches are not built to accommodate user errors like misspellings, so they result in frustration—and lost business.

Building a valuable site search experience is challenging. If search is not necessary for your users and you don’t have the capacity to develop a robust search experience, it should not be a priority for your firm.

How to create a valuable search experience on your site

Search typically plays two key roles in a user’s experience of your site. Design your website’s search functionality around these two roles and you’ll satisfy 99% of users.

#1: Search is a shortcut. Your users don’t want to have to wade through your site and understand how you’ve chosen to organize it. A user arrives at your site and they want to skip to the final result: exactly what they need, immediately.

#2: Search is a rescue boat. A user may attempt to use your navigational tools. But when they get stuck and don’t know where to click next, they might turn to your search tool. Because you can’t anticipate where someone will get lost, it’s smart to offer “rescue” or search capability on every page. 

Keeping these two things in mind, a valuable website search experience is visible and simple.   

Here are some quick guidelines:

  • Use a search box where they can type: Search boxes can increase usage more than 90% compared to a link to a separate search page. Make sure the box is big enough to accommodate the average query length.
  • Try microcopy to prompt users: Help guide users toward common queries by including faded sample text.
  • Configure search to show the original query: After their first search, make sure that your results page includes the text of their original query. This helps your user make edits and encourages them to tweak and re-search.
  • Avoid a “no results” option: Always offer something to your searchers. If a user’s query won’t turn up anything on your site, build a special page so they’re not empty-handed. This could be a simple paragraph with a link to your FAQ page or Contact page, so they can reach out if their query wasn’t answered.
  • Don’t forget mobile search: Your entire website should be optimized for mobile users, and this includes search capability. Make sure to test the search experience from a mobile device.

Half of users will give up if their first search is unsuccessful. Even a person who continues to tweak their query will tend to get less success with each subsequent query, according to Nielsen Norman. 

Work with a developer to design a usable, valuable search experience for your site—and don’t offer search if you can’t offer a good experience.

Review and next steps

Search functionality is a great way to surface valuable content for a firm that has a large site and informed clients. But it may not be necessary for a smaller firm with basic services and less content. 

Whether you need help configuring a valuable search experience or you need a brand new website for your firm, it’s time to take action. If you’re ready to elevate your digital presence to satisfy users and encourage bookings, we’d love to chat.

About the Author
The team at OneFirst Legal has built websites for thousands of law firms across the United States. Fueled by data and whole lot of creativity, OneFirst helps law firms make a powerful first impression online with websites that convert visitors into clients.