How can I ensure users find what they’re looking for on my marketplace?

A marketplace is only going to be successful if the people using it can find what they’re looking for. This is where your marketplace UX/UI and search engine comes in. 

It goes without saying, you’re going to need an adequate number of vendors, but more than that, you need to make it easy to match your customers’ needs with those vendors’ products and services. Finding what they’re looking for as quickly and as easily as possible is essential if you want your online marketplace to be well used and recommended.

On visiting a site, customers are most likely to click on a product category, or type in a query. If they can, they will then refine their search by using available filters or sorting by things such as price so the results most pertinent to them will display first, either showing on a list or a map.

All of these stages that a customer goes through – searching, filtering, sorting – are part of delivering a good customer experience so they can find the product they’re after. Make sure your marketplace website design is a pleasure to use and maximises your conversion rate.

Let’s start with the search engine

Most people, on entering a site, will go to the search engine first, pretty obvious so they can hone in on exactly what they’re looking for. Most search engines aren’t perfect though, people use different terminology for the same thing, so it’s never going to be 100% accurate. To be able to translate what people mean from what they say requires artificial intelligence algorithms but that isn’t always possible so you might need to rely on more straightforward solutions such as matching keywords that are put into a search engine to match with keywords in a product description.

In some cases, it’s not actually a product that is searched for, but a location – think about how you search on a site like Airbnb. So, there are two main types of search available, we’ll go over each…

Searching by keyword

Good marketplace UX denotes your search bar needs to be at the top of your site so there is no effort required looking for it. And it doesn’t hurt to put it on every page (apart from the checkout flow) so you are giving customers the maximum amount of freedom to look for what they want.

To make things even more self-explanatory for customers, it helps to have text in your search bar that gives instructions such as ‘search by keyword or product code’. The thing that will optimise search results is placing the most relevant returns at the top of the list. That means, if going by keywords, the first returns have the keyword in the title, then one’s where the keyword is in the description and it should be set up such that if someone types in a partial word (e.g. camp) it will return results with the whole word (e.g. campsite) but exact matches are the priority, but equally, ‘near-misses’ are important too as it could just be a poor input on behalf of the customer. 

You might also want to consider something called auto-completion where the customer starts typing and the site automatically fills in what it thinks they are looking for. This could work to your advantage as you’ll be able to put forward ideas that you think your customer may want although do this with a little caution, be as precise and selective as you can as you don’t want to steer people away from what they were looking for as that will only lead to frustration.

Keep an eye on how your customers use your search tool, test the words that are most used, make sure you’re happy with the results that they bring up. If they are not fairly accurate to what is being looked for you need to address this by ensuring that you have vendors that can match these requests, or ensure you are conveying correctly what it is you are offering. You may need to tinker with the way your search facility works too.

Searching by location

Sometimes geographical location is key, however wide the search, be it village, town, county or country. This type of search needs to be accurate, to include near locations as well. The best results come if you can include a ‘radius’ that people are happy to travel to. These results are commonly shown on a list, or a map, which makes it easy for the customer to see their best options. Utilising search engines such as Google Maps make this an easy feature. 

Some marketplaces will combine their searches with keywords AND location – this is particularly useful on sites that are like the old-fashioned ‘classifieds’, e.g. gumtree, where the results are filtered on both criteria.

Consider categories

In addition, when selling a wide variety of products, you’ll want to put them into categories to narrow things down. They’re really useful for customers and vendors alike, as they will alert vendors as to whether you have a category that matches what they are trying to sell, and if so, your site will be more attractive to them.

If you do want to utilise categories, make sure you don’t overcomplicate things. Too much choice can be as frustrating for users as not enough. Keep your categories limited and narrow so that you have something available in each. You can always add more as your offering widens but don’t make the mistake of starting off with empty categories, it doesn’t look good! Depending on your marketplace UI, filters may be a better option.

Filtered results

Sometimes a search or category isn’t enough for a customer to find the best match for what they’re looking for. If there are numerous results, a filter may be required and this can be a little complicated. It’s called faceted search and it’s fairly rare for a business to get it right. Usually there aren’t enough category-specific filters. If a filter is put in place too early, it can mean your customers won’t ever get to see the products they’re actually looking for.

Filters can be based around brand, occupancy, style etc. Just make sure you don’t add more filters than you need, keep it simple. You can always create more when you have more vendors, but as with categories, you never want to be in a position where a search comes back with no results.

Sorting results

Different customers want different things and will not only look for them in different ways, but expect different results. Sounds like a complicated thing to get right doesn’t it? The best way to set up your search is for results to be sorted by relevance. If being searched via categories, again show the most relevant results, or the newest so repeat customers will see something different each time they visit. 

As you get more and more vendors and therefore products, you may need to increase the options for how results are listed, be it by price (some prefer low to high, others the opposite), the date it was added to the site, those that come from vendors with the best reviews etc.

Just make sure you are not over-complicating things for the sake of it, don’t add features that no-one is ever going to use. And only allow customers to sort if it makes the marketplace website design a better experience for all involved.

Again, the two most common ways for results to be shown is on a list, or a map, or a combination of the two.

Lists are usually accompanied by product images. Good quality photos are a really important part of a marketplace UX, so make sure you get this aspect correct from day one. It can completely enhance the experience from the customer point of view.

Maybe the products you are selling don’t lend themselves to being photographed easily and in that case you are better off just having a simple list. Although visually, photographs do make a better experience for customers (as long as they’re good!) so consider using vendor’s profile pictures if product shots aren’t available.

Make sure you have good, concise titles and prices with your photos. And consider including the profile name (if not photo) of the vendor to emphasise the fact your marketplace is made up of different, unique sellers. 

Equally, if location is relevant, consider displaying the distance from the customer. If you stick to these simple criteria your marketplace will look clutter-free and therefore easier to navigate.

Optimise the browsing experience

Remember when setting up your marketplace there are three main ways to handle browsing. The most commonly used is pagination whereby a fixed number of results are displayed, with options to move on to further results pages. While neat to look at, it can be a fairly slow process to browse through and potential customers may get bored of looking quite quickly. That said, if you’re confident that the first dozen or so results are best matched to your customers’ search, not overwhelming them with more results at once is ideal.

More often than not though, it’s better to allow customers to browse all results on one scrolling page otherwise known as infinite scroll. New results are automatically loaded as the customer scrolls down. Equally a ‘load more’ button at the bottom would do the same job, loading the results under the ones already shown.

Research has shown that a combination of infinite scroll and ‘load more’ provides the best option. Start off by showing up to around 30 products, and keep adding the same amount using an infinite scroll, until you reach around 100 products (or less depending on what you are selling) and then use a load more button.

This combination works better than scrolling alone. If the scrolling is infinite and there are hundreds of results, it’s unlikely the footer on your site will ever be seen. In addition, by requesting customers to ‘load more’ you are signifying that the results that follow are not as relevant as the first set that came up, which is a useful indicator for a customer.

Moving on to displaying results on a map, it’s important that you work out the size of the area you want to show, i.e. how far zoomed in or out it is. Google Maps allows for a ‘bounding box’ based on analysis of the search that has been input, adapting the map to the best zoom level depending on the query.

Most marketplaces allow for maps to refresh when moved which is really useful as it means customers don’t have to keep repeating their search and is something that we would recommend. Make sure that the map and list work in unison such that when the map is moved the list is updated accordingly.

There are other ways that the map and list can work together. It’s possible to have a list that drops down when you hover over a pin in a map. Equally, hovering over a list can show where that is on the map. This is a very user-friendly way of working, 

When using this combination of list and map, browsing is best done by pagination. This will stop the map being overcrowded, as would happen if infinite scrolling is used. 

Some marketplaces will not only search but also compare different vendors. A good example of this is Uber which works in real time and aims to offer the most efficient solution to customers. Customers are not particularly concerned with who the vendor is, just that they are offered a solution, so marketplaces like these will use an algorithm to automatically select the most appropriate vendor that matches the customer search. 

Marketplaces that are offering professional services need a different approach and personal preference comes into play. Here, customers will want to read about the different vendors and their services before making a decision. 

So, when you’re looking at the best way to ensure your customers can find what they’re looking for on your marketplace in a user-friendly, highly-efficient way, think about whether a keyword or location search is more relevant. Then think about whether or not you need categories at this stage, do you have enough vendors to warrant it and if you do start by keeping them simple, you can add another level later on if appropriate. Think about useful filters, such as price (minimum and maximum) which is often a customer’s main concern. 

Then consider how you want results displayed that makes the most sense for your type of marketplace. This is usually either a list or a map, or a combination of the two. 

Too much choice online can be distracting and unhelpful. Keep thinking about how you get results to your customers in the most efficient, clean way possible. As you grow and get more vendors, customers and feedback you can start adapting your site to provide an even better service.