Internal Search: 7 ways to ensure your users can find your information
27th May 2008
Google has created a generation of discerning, complex searchers. Once, a single search term was used to find information, now users will create keyword combinations and phrases in order to find the exact information they want. Google has developed a far more complex and evolved algorithm in order to meet the growing needs of today's users. If we make a spelling mistake it asks us "did you really mean"; if we search for a product it lists possible matches along with prices and where to buy it. So when we go onto a website we have extremely high expectations for the internal search, why shouldn't it perform as well as Google?
Here at User Vision we have seen time and time again in our usability tests that users go straight for the internal search when the main navigation does not provide a clear or intuitive route to the information they are looking for. It is therefore essential to ensure internal search is flexible, dynamic, predictive and designed with website users in mind.
We have put together our top 7 tips on how to ensure your internal search is capable of meeting the needs of your users.
1. Ensure your search field is clearly visible from the homepage
It may sound simple but the first way to ensure users can successfully use the internal search is to make sure they can see it. Many websites use text links, like the one shown, to direct users to the site search. This is often missed by users and assumed the site has no search facility. You could have the most advanced search logic around but if users don't know there is a search facility they won't use it.
Ensure you have a search box, like the one shown, directly on the homepage, this will allow users to access the facility whenever they wish. People do expect the search to be in a similar place regardless of which site they are on. If possible try and locate the search somewhere in the top right hand corner of the site.
2. Give descriptive search results
Make sure that your search returns descriptive results on each item. The results should be clearly structured with a relevant title and also a brief description as to what is contained in the listing. Also it is important to identify what the link is, for example if it is a PDF then say so on the title listing (and ensure you have a clear link to the PDF reader download).
Something that is becoming more popular is "best bets" which are results that best match the given search term (see example). These help build confidence and guide users to the information you think is relevant to them. It goes without saying though that if best bets are to be used, it is vital that they guide the user to relevant information; having irrelevant best bits could damage user confidence in the website.
3. Match user's logic with search logic
To create a successful internal search, it is important to think like a user. For example, a user may want to find out information on "lollipop ladies" on their local council website; however, the site search returns no results because the council's preferred term is "school crossing wardens".
All preferred terms should be matched with as many relevant variant terms and synonyms as possible; this will ensure that despite the word entered, users will still be directed to the most relevant information.
4. Take account of spelling mistakes
One of the most common problems with internal search is that it often does not take into account spelling mistakes. Many users will mistype keywords into the search and be unaware of doing so, if they are not alerted to the problem and no results are found, they are likely to assume the content they are looking for is not there and go elsewhere to find it.
Ensuring that the site search is created to take account of common misspellings and offering a "did you mean" facility will enable users to navigate to the content they desire.
5. Allow the search results to be filtered
Even once a user has entered a search term and relevant results are found they should still be given other options. Allowing people to filter their search results down will enable them to locate very specific information. Filtering by date, type, exact phrase or category can all enhance the user experience and ensure that they find the exact information they are looking for.
Also it is vital that users are able to go back easily and alter the search term they had entered. Always have the search box with the entered term visible, this will allow them to make amendments to their original term if they require to.
6. Give advanced search options
In addition to providing a filter to help users refine, offering an advanced search option can also really enhance the online experience. Those who are more frequent website users will often benefit from an advanced search option in particular and it will empower the user, allowing them to locate information far more quickly. Naturally if advanced search options are to be used, it is essential that all the information in the site is indexed and cross referenced so that the most relevant results are returned.
7. Offer alternatives
The no results page is a crucial element in the search process. Even with the most advanced search, there are still going to be occasions when the information that the user is looking for is simply not there. Offering users searching advice and near matches should keep users on the site and should help them find relevant information. It is important though that users are told the results are in fact close matches and not exact matches. If they are not aware of this they may think the results are irrelevant, diminishing their confidence in the search facility and the website as a whole.
What can you do next?
- Read some more usability and accessibility articles.
- Evaluate your internal search and the general usability of your site through usability testing.
- Attend one of our usability training courses.
Want this article on your website?
If you liked this article, feel free to republish it on your own website. All that we ask is that you include the citation below, including links, at the end of the article.
This article was written by Chris Rourke. Chris is the Managing Director of User Vision, a usability and accessibility consultancy that helps clients gain a competitive advantage through improved ease of use.