Site-Search Usability: General Thoughts

- April 1, 2008

Have you ever considered optimizing the usability of your site-search? If so, first consider why visitors would use the search box on your site. I can see two general reasons why they would use it:

  1. Right when the visitor gets the urge to find some content, they have already decided that using a site-search, opposed to clicking and reading around, will find that content faster.
  2. The user tried reading around and clicking to find that content, but gave up because they couldn’t find that content (fast enough) so they started using the site’s search feature.

There are three types of visitors when it comes to site search: search-dominant, browse-dominate and a blend of the two. Search-dominant users think they can get better results faster from searching the site. The fact that visitors have less time to look through all the potential websites to which Google points them and the ever-increasing amount of content in them supports why this type of visitor is becoming more prevalent all the time. The second visitor type is probably motivated to click and read though a site more than searching because they know where to find the content and think they can do so fast enough for their needs. Maybe they value the experience of exploring or perhaps they’re just ‘Feeling Lucky.’ The third type probably thinks they can find some content faster using a site-search and other content faster by browsing.

Sometimes, when new users come to your site, they’ll use the search feature, and in becoming familiar with the navigation on the pages to which your site-search directs them, they will become better at knowing where to find content on your site in the future. Therefore, returning users may use the site’s search feature less than new users. This probably means that your site’s overall usability and information architecture is effective.

My colleague, Joe, blogged about an increasing phenomenon in which users who have arrived on your site from search engines will then use your site’s search box, but will often search for terms so broad, it defies your understanding. He said that users may be using more precise (‘long-tail’) searches on Google to find your site and using broad search terms once on your site because they expect that it’s Google that needs the more precise search term. This makes sense because Google has billions of pages in its index and your site may only have 50 total pages.

In order to optimize the usability of your site-search, you have to get in the visitors’ heads. Sometime this is extremely difficult. This difficulty can be overcome, however, by reading usability reports and any psychological reports remotely related to this subject.

So, when you consider site-search optimization, realize that search engine traffic to your site (SEO), your own site-search and your site’s navigation are all inter-related. When you adjust one of these items, another one may be have to be adjusted in order to give your site the best usability possible.

Consider these suggestions:

  • Assume the user may want to use site-search on your site, especially if it’s any larger than a typical ‘brochure site.’ Therefore, be conscious of this and provide this feature.
  • Always seek to create a better site-search experience for your users by comparing the terms searched for against the results your website returns. Secondly, since you know the content of your website well, analysis of site-search usability will probably be much more reliable if you use small-group testing methods composed of those not familiar with your site.
  • Learn and use your analytics services.
  • Don’t assume that all visitors arrive on your site from the home page. Also, don’t assume that your home page receives the most traffic (you can validate this for your site using analytics services). Place your search box on every page, in a standard location (usually top right or top center) and make the search box stand out some way.
  • Always analyze your site-search analytics (and adjust your site as necessary): compare percentages of visitors that use site-search with those who do not; see if visitors are leaving your site right after they see the search results, or if they stay, how long they stay; compare the amount of pages site-search users view (known as depth) with that of the site’s visitors’ average depth to see if your entire site needs work or the just site-search’s relevancy of results needs your attention. Feel free to come up with additional areas of site-search usability analysis.

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