Over the past year, I’ve evaluated the search experiences on a number of popular content sites. With the help of author and interface designer Darcy DiNucci, I picked apart the search and result designs from sites like Apple.com, NASA.gov, SchwabFoundation.org, and a variety of others. We focused on content sites, rather than e-commerce or Web applications, and we avoided general Web search engines entirely.
Our finding, not surprisingly, is that almost every site’s search engine could use improvement. We also found that most organizations’ Web teams couldn’t really affect the quality of their search results—they were stuck tweaking search technologies that had already been purchased and installed. Often, the most dramatic change they could make was in the design of the search and results interfaces. In some cases, as the old saying goes, this was like putting lipstick on a pig. But cleaning things up does help users find answers to their queries.
Through our research, we discovered eight quick fixes that will improve your site’s search experience:
1. Question search engine defaults.
2. Relevance is relative.
Ranking results based on their relevance is a subjective practice at best. Every piece of search software has its own algorithm for determining which documents best match which queries. Make sure the default ranking you select matches your user needs.
3. Help users avoid mistakes.
4. Roll your own results.
Even if you can’t change your search engine’s algorithm to be more relevant for your users, don’t give up hope. Frankly, one of the best ways to improve your results is to do them by hand. Get a report of the top search queries on your site. Take the top ten and find three to five pages that satisfy those queries. Then, create a simple script to match them up on your results page. When you have time, do the next 20 most popular. Stop when you get to 50. That will likely cover the majority of your users’ queries. Check the report once a month and adjust the canned results as necessary.
5. Simplify your page layout.
Almost every search engine can be more effective with a simple layout.
- Include a wide text box with the user’s search query and a submit button labeled “Search again.”
- Use a header that displays the total number of results and a control for displaying the next 10 (preferably an arrow pointing to the right).
- List 10 results with ranking numbers hanging in the column.
- Repeat the navigation controls at the bottom of the results.
6. Offer help for zero results.
If a query doesn’t find any matches, display the following:
- A text box showing the user’s query that allows them to edit it.
- Possible spelling alternatives, presented with the phrase, “Did you mean [alternative]?”
- A couple of other tips as a bulleted list. “Try a broader search term.” or “Try using a synonym.”
- Include a link to search help, a site map, and contact page.
7. Use categories if you’ve got them.
If your search software offers different search categories (often called catalogs or indices), use them to organize your results in a similar structure to your site’s architecture. Then include links at the top of the results page that show how many results match each category. This will help users narrow their search to a more manageable list.
8. Advanced search and help should be the same thing.
If you link to a page that offers usage instructions for the many features of your search engine, include interfaces for those features so they can be used without switching back and forth. See the advanced search page at HotBot for an example.