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However, I have little experience in what impact to expect. Does anybody here have real measurements of a change like this? I.e., if I reduce the time of a product search from 20 to 10 seconds, will the conversion improve just a bit, or will it really go up significantly?
If your database access is really that slow (and can't be improved) then I'd be looking at implementing something like Google site search instead.
Of course, search that is performing that poorly needs to be revisited and improved significantly. But to suggest to throw search out the window could be a deathwish in some cases.
most shoppers (on all but the biggest sites) find products by drilling down, not by using a search form.
Certainly search forms are used to some degree. They are vital on some sites. But many work terribly. Look up "baseball", "baseballs", "base ball", "base balls" on smaller sporting goods sites. You'll get different results with each and probably nothing with one or two. Shoppers have learned to navigate by better means.
We have a search form on nearly every page of our site and only a small portion of our visitors do even one form search.
The subject has come up before on WebmasterWorld
Just because most do it on most websites, doesn't mean there aren't some types of sites where nearly ALL search instead of drilldown.
We don't know the OP's site or industry. So blindly tell him to get a different way of navigation for his site rather than solve the issue is inappropriate.