Mastering Site Search with McMaster-Carr

Mastering Site Search with McMaster-Carr

Have you ever heard of McMaster-Carr? This supplier of washers, nuts, and other hardware has a shout-out for their onsite search on their Wikipedia page. Let’s take a look and see what they are doing so well.

Over 500,000 products, still easy to shop

Site search is a great way for users to get directly to the information they seek. Type in exactly what you want, and you get the exact page you need.

  • No sifting through the navigation looking for the page that might contain the information you want.
  • No clicking the back button to see if you may have missed something on the previous page.
  • No scrolling down to the bottom of the page for the sitemap to see subpages lead.

“Search, and ye shall receive.”

Well, in theory at least. But there are a few ways you can ensure this experience for your site’s users.

More often than not, a site search yields results pages that contain numerous potential locations for the data you seek. Sure, on Amazon you may want to see all the options for a search for “bikes” or “record player.” But it is much more likely that you have a very specific subset of results in mind (e.g. girls bikes, men’s mountain bikes, women’s road bikes 16” frame).

Reasons People Search

Navigational: The immediate intent is to reach a particular page that the user has in mind, either since they visited it in the past or because they assume that such a page exists.

Informational: The intent is to acquire some information assumed to be present on the site. No further interaction is predicted, except reading the contents.

Transactional: The intent is to perform some web-mediated activity. The interaction constitutes the transaction defining these queries, and they are the most difficult to evaluate.


If you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, it doesn’t hurt to use broad search terms. But realistically, users often have a rather specific idea of what they’re looking for. And there are some practical ways you can help them get there.

How McMaster-Carr Guides the User

The two main types of onsite search are open and suggested. So how does one “McMaster” onsite search? Is it with one or the other, or a combination?


McMaster-Carr has one of the best site searches out there. The site (while perhaps not a designers dream) is effective at getting users to the product they seek, by prioritizing usability over design. The search feature on is highly useful. Begin typing in a type of product, and a drop down below the search box begins returning suggested options. These options are based on the actual inventory.


Images of the products on the page update in realtime as you type in the search box. Looking for tube bonders (whatever those are)? Well, you’ll see your options for them as you search!


This functionality demonstrates how a company’s site can successfully use search to address the needs of users. With over 550,000 products, finding a particular type of washer or bearing needs to be:

  • Fast, with suggestions of what is in stock.
  • Clear, with photos of products that dynamically update

McMaster-Carr is doing a great job using some of the most important onsite search best practices. What are some other sites that are making search easy?

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