Photo of a row of shoes

A guide to faceted search.

Erm… what the hell is faceted search anyway?

It’s a web-industry term for filtering a list of search results (for example, a list of shoes on a shoe store website) by available category. Some of these categories (or facets) are deal-breakers, and some are just nice to have, but all contribute to a pleasant user experience. The opposite is true too – the absence of facets can create an unpleasant, constrictive experience.

For an online shoe shop, essential facets would include:

  • Size
  • Price
  • Basic shoe style (e.g. trainers, boots, heels, sandals, slippers)

There are dozens of ‘nice to havefacets, including:

  • Material (canvas, leather, rubber)
  • Heel type (kitten, flat, stiletto)
  • Specific style (e.g. high-top trainers, brogues, mules)

A red leather size 6 kitten heel, yesterday.

You could certainly argue that some of these ‘nice to haves’ are in fact deal-breakers. In fact, it’s hard to look at any of the options above and not crave them all.

There’s a reason for this craving – in a bricks & mortar shoe store, our brains do all of this ‘facet sorting’ without us even thinking about it. Just one glance around the shop floor is enough. Websites are clunky in comparison – but this can be alleviated to an extent by providing your visitors with as many relevant facets as possible.

So how do you find facets in the first place?

The best approach is a combination of intuition and research. For example, I designed a search system for a cottage holidays website. Some facets were obvious enough – price, location, number of bedrooms and so on. Others only revealed themselves after examining the company’s call centre logs – such as distance of the property to the beach, and whether pets were allowed at the property. As a non-dog owner, this last one hadn’t occurred to me, but in reality affected over half their customer base! As a result, the ‘dog-friendly holidays’ option is given prime positioning throughout the site.

As the business owner, you will instinctively know many relevant facets. But also remember you know too much about your business compared to an average user (you have the curse of knowledge), and this may adversely affect your judgement. So use your knowledge as a starting point, and then do the following:

  • Ask your call centre staff. They know exactly what the common customer queries are. Aim to spend an hour a week in your call centre, and listen in to some calls yourself.
  • Steal from the competition. Ebay has particularly excellent faceted search, as does Amazon (no surprises there!)
  • If you’ve got a ‘site search’ function on your site, examine the logs for searches containing facets.
  • Conduct one-to-one user tests on your website.
  • Conduct an online survey and send it to your past customers / target audience.

It’s worth spending the time to do this. If someone can find exactly the red size 6 leather kitten heels they’re looking for, they are more likely to buy them. Kind of stands to reason doesn’t it.

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