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Simplify & Sort for Better Searches

Find out how to make your search tool the most valuable part of your Web site.

Nothing matters more to your Web site's success than a good search tool. More than 50 percent of visitors to a Web site head straight for the search button, according to Web site usability expert Jakob Nielsen (offsite link.Useit.com). You may feel your Web site's logical layout obviates any need for a search tool, but chances are a first-time visitor won't agree. Even if it's a paragon of elegance and efficiency, too many users have been traumatized by poorly organized Web sites to even try browsing anymore. Users are task-focused and want to find specific information as fast as possible. That means using a search tool.

The logic behind a usable search tool is simple. People search because they have a question that needs an answer. The search tool's job is to learn the question and provide a clear, concise answer. The first thing you should do is put a simple search tool on every page of your Web site. Half of your visitors will use it right from the home page. Others may bounce around the site before deciding to search. Be sure to put the search button near the top of every page, so those users don't have hunt for it. If 80 percent of your Web site visitors use a tool, you need to keep it in plain view.

Don't hide it under a bushel basket

Don't be tempted to save a few pixels by merely linking your home page to a separate search page. You can offer a simple, powerful search tool in about the same space you'd need to link to a separate search page. Borders.com prominently displays its search tool in less than a half-inch of screen real estate, near the top of every page.

Figure 1. Helpful searching. Borders.com displays its search prominently, in less than a half-inch of screen real estate, near the top of every page. Help and advanced search tools are just a click away.
Screenshot: Borders.com's search help page.

The basic Borders search packs a wallop, allowing visitors to limit the search to a section of the site. The tool provides a search textbox big enough to let users type in a typical query. It also includes a Help link that leads to instructions, examples, tips, and advanced search tools. Some Web sites provide separate links, one labeled Help or Tips and another labeled Advanced Search. This clarifies each link's purpose. If I hadn't clicked the Borders Help link, I wouldn't have known that it connects to a variety of advanced search tools. Some Web sites, such as eBay, include a brief search hint to reduce the need for further search assistance.

Figure 2. Can you give me a hint. With eBay.com’s search hints, you may not need to jump to another page for help.
Screenshot: eBay's search hints.

Borders uses the word Find on its search button. Web sites often label the search button Search, Find, Go, or Submit. These terms are all widely used, and you can expect the visitors to understand any of them. Search and Find are probably better than Go or Submit. I prefer Find for the search button label because it differentiates the act of starting a search from the feature's name. You can jazz up the search button by using a custom graphic, designed to match the Web site's look. MotherNature simply tweaked the HTML code to do this. Compare it to CDNow, which uses a normal button.

Figure 3. A pretty find. The Find button doesn’t need to be plain and ordinary. A simple html change is all it takes to replace that drab submit button with an attractive graphic.
Comparison in screenshots and code for normal submit button vs graphical submit button.

You can't do a full-site search on the Borders.com Web site, where the scope is always limited to books, music, or videos. A search tool should only limit the scope when each area of the Web site is unique, with unified content. Even then, it's a good idea to include an option to search the entire site. Limited searches are dangerous because infrequent visitors often won't understand how a site is set up. They'll search in one section of the site, not understanding that the answer might be found in another section. Or, if the search tool doesn't spell out that the search is limited, users will assume it applies to the entire site.

Help visitors ask the right questions

Advanced search tools can help visitors narrow down a question. Unfortunately, these tools are complex, so you need to carefully design them so your visitors can get meaningful search results. Research librarians, mathematicians, and people with programming experience understand Boolean logic, but most others don't, and Boolean-based searches will throw them. To find information about universities and colleges, these people will enter the search request universities AND colleges. To get the results they're expecting, they'd instead need to enter the search request universit* OR college*.

When you know the sorts of questions your users are likely to ask, you can design advanced search tools that provide clear answers to those questions. One way to do this is to let the users narrow the scope of their searches by selecting from one or more fields of information. Barnesandnoble.com's advanced search page lets users specify their interests by price, format, age group, and subject. For multifield searches, most search tools treat the connection between fields as a Boolean AND.

Figure 4. Precision searching. Barnesandnoble.com helps users narrow the search with selections by price range, age group, book format, and subject matter.
Screenshot: BarnesandNoble.com permits narrowing the search criteria.

For added usability, search tools should anticipate how visitors ask questions. For example, while one user might enter Edward Tufte in the author field, another might enter Tufte, Edward. Is it Dr., or Doctor? Jim or James? SoftMedia Artisans or Soft Media Artisans? A smart search tool will support partial matches and phonetic matches to anticipate as many variations as possible. Of course, a smart search tool will also support proximity and phrase searches.

Package results so they make sense

Making a good search request tool is just a start. The results must be useful and usable, too. At its most basic, the search-results page should include a list of the documents found to match the search request. Consider providing the following information for each document:

  • Title, pulled from the head section of the HTML.
  • Description, including metadescription from the head section of the HTML, if available. Otherwise, include the first few sentences of the page or list selected sentences that include words from the search request.
  • Date last modified or originally published, whichever is most meaningful for the way the pages are updated.
  • File size, especially useful if the site contains large documents.
  • URL, useful when listing pages from a large, multisection Web site.

An example search results page from UsableWeb.com displays many of these pieces of information.

Figure 5. Best Worst--First Last. UsableWeb.com ranks search results, putting the best finding first and using a percentage bar to stress relevancy. Details listed with each document further clarify the content.
Screenshot: UsableWeb.com's search results--sorted by relevancy.

You should also organize search results to make your findings more useful. MotherNature.com does a splendid job of organizing its search results into meaningful sections. When I searched for calcium, MotherNature returned links to a Consumer Guide to Calcium, followed by MotherNature's Picks, which included three key calcium products for sale on the site. The site summarized the Full Lists of "CALCIUM" products into a single link leading to several pages of calcium products. This smart trick left room for additional useful links to Formulas and Solutions Containing the phrase "CALCIUM," Articles About "CALCIUM," and Products with "CALCIUM" in the title.

Figure 6. MotherNature Packs a Punch. MotherNature organizes its search results into topic areas that add meaning to the links.
Screenshot: MotherNature.com organizes search results by topic.

MotherNature's links help make another point. Don't overwhelm visitors with details. Instead, bring back the minimum amount of information necessary to let visitors understand the findings. By categorizing the search results, MotherNature can strictly limit the text for each link. Long descriptions aren't necessary because the category, such as Formulas and Solutions Containing the phrase "CALCIUM" provides the context.

Rank, filter, categorize

It makes sense to rank search results by relevancy, putting the best matches first. You can hint at the relevancy level by listing a percentage or showing a shaded graphic or partially filled bar. When search results are organized into a series of columns, you may want to sort them by one of the columns, then allow visitors to sort them by any of the other columns. The following instructions appear on an eBay search-results page sorted by item number: You can click on the Start Time, End Time, or Price links to sort the list.

If your users can sort the search results, you can probably let them filter the results. Searches often bring back too many results, and filtering is a good way to reduce the results to a more meaningful subset. If appropriate to your data, let users limit the results by selecting from a set of date ranges or by specifying a range of prices.

Even if your results are most useful when sorted by relevancy, you may be able filter the results by category or topic. For example, a technology Web site might show findings ranked by relevancy, but include filters for product specifications, reviews, downloads, and news.

An even simpler way to refine your search tool is to show the original query in a search textbox on the search-results page. Whether the search results are too narrow or too wide, a search textbox on the results page encourages the user to adjust the query and try again.

No search-results page is complete without summarizing the results and providing navigation among multiple pages. You can summarize the results by showing both the total number of documents found and the total number of search-results pages. Providing links to individual search-results pages makes it easy for your users to jump back and forth among the findings.

When no matches are found, your search summary page should include additional information to help users decide where to look next. Offer search tips and a search-again textbox and button. Be sure to include navigational links to all sections of the Web site. If a search isn't helping, the navigational links may be all you need to let users get to the desired information.

The 80-20 rule should convince you to make your Web site searchable. Never forget why people search a Web site: to find a question that needs an answer. Design your search tools in a way that anticipates the questions and simplifies the answers. With that as a goal, your search tools-and, more importantly, your Web site-are sure to succeed.

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