The Swiftype Blog / The Evolution of Search on Amazon

The Evolution of Search on Amazon

This post was initially published by Internet Retailer—a leading source of ecommerce news and publications.

One of my favorite tools for online research is the Internet Archive—a 501(c)(3) non-profit devoted to the digital preservation of the web as it evolves, crawling the web and capturing how various web pages have looked at different points in time. As someone who spends time researching and writing about web design, I’ve relied on this tool to trace the evolution of numerous websites—Amazon.com being one of the most fascinating websites to study in light of its ever increasing power and influence over the web, particularly the realm of ecommerce.

While Amazon’s homepage design has evolved in response to a wide range of influences and company goals, one of the most striking changes has been the increasingly prominent role that the search bar plays in the user experience. Viewed in the context of the internet’s larger history, this evolution makes logical sense: Google and Amazon were both founded around the same time (1994 and 1998, respectively), and while Google has made more of a name for itself as the innovator in search technologies, search technology at Amazon has had to evolve alongside Google because of the tremendously important role it plays in ecommerce.

Considering the tremendous strides that Google has made in search technology over the last fifteen years, it should come as no surprise that Amazon has had to work equally as hard to keep pace (today still, Amazon has an entire section of its job site devoted to Search and Discovery Technologies positions). As Amazon’s search has bar has become more useful and more powerful, it has become increasingly valuable to users. And the more valuable it has become, the more devoted real estate it has received across the homepage and website.

Let’s trace this evolution with a series of screenshots from Amazon’s homepage over the last fifteen years, focusing on the changing size and position of the search bar.

May 10, 2000: Search begins somewhat obscurely tucked in the top left corner.

May 10, 2000: Search begins somewhat obscurely tucked in the top left corner. Amazon provides the option to filter searches to a specific subsection of the site and a suggested query to inspire users, but the sidebar below the search bar remains a primary navigation tool. This design remains largely unchanged for the next six years.

 June 2, 2007: Search occupies a much more prominent space in the header of the page, but the sidebar remains equally prominent as a critical navigation tool.

June 2, 2007: Search occupies a much more prominent space in the header of the page, but the sidebar remains equally prominent as a critical navigation tool.

June 15, 2012: Amazon eliminates the sidebar, offering instead a single search bar to serve as the primary portal for users entering the site.

June 15, 2012: Amazon eliminates the sidebar, offering instead a single search bar to serve as the primary portal for users entering the site.

June 9, 2015: Not only does search remain the most prominent feature in the header of Amazon’s homepage, but the search bar now sticks to the top of the page as shoppers scroll.

June 9, 2015: Not only does search remain the most prominent feature in the header of Amazon’s homepage, but the search bar now sticks to the top of the page as shoppers scroll.

The trend across these images is clear. As search technology has improved on Amazon, the search bar has become a more valuable asset in the user experience and has accordingly taken a more prominent position the homepage. At the same time, with the dominance that Google exercises across the web, user expectations for search have steadily risen as well—a development which undoubtedly contributed to Amazon’s shift towards such a search-centric user experience.

Another major takeaway from this evolution is the massive amount of data that Amazon is able to collect as a result of their massive search volume. On site search queries are arguably the clearest expression of user intent available to site owners, and Amazon continually leverages this information to intelligently promote products across their website—a subject and design evolution that merits its own post entirely.

To learn more about best practices for site search design and see example implementations, read our post on Swiftype’s favorite implementations from 2014.