Our Current Thinking on Search

Jared Spool

December 5th, 2005

Way back in 1997, we wrote an article talking about how when users used on-site Search to find their content, they succeeded significantly less than when they used the category links on the same site. The Internet has changed dramatically since 1997. Has our thinking changed?

First, it’s pretty clear that users choose to use on-site Search when the page they’re on fails them. They scan the page for trigger words. Only when they can’t find them, do they turn to Search. It’s their trigger words they type into the search box. (In essence, they are creating their own links to the content, primarily due to absence of the necessary links on the page.)

Second, the need for Search is primarily dictated by the nature of the content. Some content, such as books and CDs, (which we call Uniquely-Identifiable Content,) lends itself to search nicely. Most content is not like that (in that it can’t be uniquely identified) and therefore Search fails more frequently for that type of content.

Usage of Search is a predictor that the scent on your pages isn’t working. Fix the scent and the demand for Search goes way down. We’ve found this to be true far more often than not.

Our current thinking hasn’t changed much since 1997. Local Search is only necessary if you can’t make the investment in ensuring the right links are on the right pages. Some local search can be very inexpensive (such as tying google.com search into your site as we’ve done on uie.com), so it may be the more cost-effective investment. (Warning: Google works because of some parlor tricks that only succeed because the Internet has billion of links. Networks removed from the Internet, such as an intranet, don’t work so well with Google.)

We still recommend our clients solve findability issues with better links, not better Search. Better Search will always be fixing the symptoms, not the problem, and is unlikely to ever reach desired goals of success.

[Want to know more about how to improve the scent on your site? Check out the upcoming UIE Roadshow, where Christine & I will be sharing our latest research on the topic.]

11 Responses to “Our Current Thinking on Search”

  1. John Labriola Says:

    I agree with your statement. Careful and deliberate thought should go into the navigation and inline links available to other content available. Other examples include you may also enjoy these links or related links. However, sites with a large extent of content become quicker to navigate when they have search functionality. Especially as there are many free and/or inexpensive add-ons available. But having one just for the sake of having one, there is no excuse for that.

  2. Will Gaus Says:

    Great piece. I see this first hand from a Knowledge Management perspective. Everyone wants search to solve their problems of finding information. Little do they know (as you point out) that they are using the missing terms as search queries. Giving them mixed results on the SERP. The problem with on-site search, enterprise search etc is that users are looking for specific answers, they dont want to have to choose which document best answers their question. They want the site to tell them…alas search is less than stellar!

  3. Eddie Says:

    Also, for intranets, I’ve found that the vast majority do not put the same attention into meta data as you would fin on the web. You search the company site for the dental reimbursment forms, and you get tons of results of word docs with cryptic files names and department speak mixed in: “EGRS/HPSS Dent_Form.doc” -which is less than friendly. Most intranet searches I’ve done have rarely been useful.

  4. vicentjorda.com » Si buscan… malo Says:

    [...] Según Jared Spool, de UIE Brain Sparks: El uso de la búsqueda es un indicador de que el esquema de navegación de tus páginas no está funcionando. Arreglalo y las búsquedas en tu sitio bajarán. Hemos comprobado que esto se cumple la mayoría de las veces. [...]

  5. Thomas Watson Steen Says:

    It’s funny how things seem to happen at the same time. Just the day before you published this new article I was feeling very frustrated about this exact topic: The quality of On-Site Search Engines – Or the lack of quality to be exact.

    I remembered your famous post on the topic from 1997 and decided to write a post in a Blog I’m authoring about how things have changed since then. Now I see that you where also wondering about these things … It’s nice to see that we are not alone with our frustration :)

  6. UIE Brain Sparks Says:

    What about Site Maps and Site Indexes?

    Site maps have been popular since the invention of the web. Site indexes are more in vogue these days. Are they worth the effort?

  7. Debbie Stewart Says:

    The one thing that we use on our Intranet that does make a form of search work is a Name search – like AOL Keywords. This is because of the size and different audiences the one site serves. A user can type in this Name/Keyword and go directly to the section/page (e.g. Benefits Enrollment) . Then you do not have to have long paragraphs helping people navigate to your benefits enrollment, etc. that are only highly used once a year. We do add them as links to the home page but our users still tend to like and use (over 75% of searches on the site are based on a Name search) this method. If it failes we then go ahead and perform a full-text Google-like search. Thoughts?

  8. What I Learned Today…»Blog Archive » No need for search engines? Says:

    [...] I just read this article on UIE Brain Sparks that states: [I]t’s pretty clear that users choose to use on-site Search when the page they’re on fails them. They scan the page for trigger words. Only when they can’t find them, do they turn to Search. It’s their trigger words they type into the search box. (In essence, they are creating their own links to the content, primarily due to absence of the necessary links on the page.) … Usage of Search is a predictor that the scent on your pages isn’t working. Fix the scent and the demand for Search goes way down. [...]

  9. WebEssentiel » Archives » Moteur de recherche interne Says:

    [...] Our Current Thinking on Search [...]

  10. Is Google a Threat to Your Web Site’s Search? – Biznology Says:

    [...] to reach for anysearch button. Visitors who don’t search after they reach your site succeed more(and buy more) than those who do. Improve your site’s navigation and reap the [...]

  11. Search - Does it work? (Part 1 of 3) - UX Podcast Says:

    [...] Our Current Thinking on Search [...]

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