UIEtips article: Producing Great Search Results — Harder than It Looks, Part 1

Jared Spool

June 25th, 2009

When you study how designs get made as much as we have, you start to notice something: good design is directly related to effort. Good design takes a lot of work. Bad design, as the bumper sticker says, “it just happens.”

You won’t find this to be any more true than in the design of effective search results pages. Search results look easy. After all, the engine has done all the heavy lifting. It’s taken the user’s query and scoured through the millions of bits of data to narrow the results down to a presentable set. All you have to do now is just display the results, right?

Well, after watching hundreds of users try to accomplish their goals with hundreds of web sites, we can now say, without any hesitation, that it’s not easy to produce a great search results page. In fact, we’re confident that it really takes a lot of hard work and skill to make something that will create a delightful experience for your users.

In today’s UIEtips, we look back at an article originally published a year ago, Producing Great Search Results: Harder than It Looks – part 1. Fortunately, having now watched all of these users, we’ve seen some really interesting patterns in how the most effective search results pages pull it off. And, over the next two weeks, we’ll share those with you.

Read my article, Producing Great Search Results: Harder Than It Looks, Part 1.

If you’re looking for ways to improve search on your web site for your users, then you’ll want to attend the next UIE Virtual Seminar that I’m presenting: Search, Scent and the Pursuit of User Happiness. In
this seminar, I’ll share some of Search’s best-kept secrets such as: a hidden resource on your server that shows you exactly how to make search more effective, and why focusing on “searchers” is a
design strategy that gets teams into trouble. Learn More.

Have you been working on your search results pages? Have you noticed design patterns that have made your site more effective? We want to hear about your experience. Share your thoughts with us below.

10 Responses to “UIEtips article: Producing Great Search Results — Harder than It Looks, Part 1”

  1. Dale Sande Says:

    Providing the result, I agree is only the first part of the process. In projects I have worked on, trying to provide as much information in the search result so that the user doesn’t have to click to each page is a great time saver for the user. Secondary to that, providing a means to which the user can filter down to less choices is practically essential in todays overload of data.

    Take overstock.com for example. With the number of products in that site, using a keyword search is almost mandatory. Look at the precedence that they place on the search bar? Do a search on ‘camera’ you will get 473 results. How will anyone ever get through all of those results? Overstock provides additional means to refine that search by either additional keywords or pre-defined options.

    Browsing is yesterday. Finding is today.

  2. DJ Says:

    What happened to the days of using quotes to indicate you only want results that include that phrase as a whole? I’ve noticed that even search engines which once used quotes as a filter now return results that only include one or two words from within the quotation-enclosed phrase. I miss my boolean operands!

    The search results our product returns can be filtered a number of different ways, or the search criteria modified to increase results. As a last resort, the user may pick through the results by hand and apply a filter that visually modifies unwanted results to make them less noticeable. All of these modifications were the result of rounds of suggestion, prototyping, and refining as we worked with expert customers to bring them a truly useful product. (Now if we can just convince the corporate office that such modifications could be as useful when incorporated with our intranet…)

  3. Soup Says:

    I am a program manager for Search at a large media company and we have been working to migrate our brand sites onto a new search engine. We have adopted a guided navigation pattern. Your comment on providing the user a list of results that might contain their magic item is an approach our team uses. For example, many of our search terms are broad. So we have adopted a pattern in which we provide best bet results in the first three spots. These results are contextually relevant to the keyword. If not then they do not appear. The first result leads directly to an index landing page where the user can dive deeper into the broad topic they searched.

    And yes, we have worked very hard to improve search; taxonomy development, information architecture, interaction design, persona development (ethnographic study), content retagging, extensive relevancy testing and visual presentation. We have extensive tracking in place, feedback mechanisms, improved “did you mean” and “no result” pages. We have achieved “buy in ” at the executive level that search is paramount to our success.

  4. Aldra Says:

    The hotelrooms.com example contains another clue that the creators of the results page don’t really understand what people want out of their search results page: each result has options (like “mail to a friend”) that are only useful after someone has clicked through and evaluated the destination page. They are still following the scent, not ready ready to bite yet…

  5. Producing Great Search Results Difficult « Dennis Deacon’s Blog and Smatterings Says:

    [...] 9, 2008 · No Comments Jared Spool of User Interface Engineering posted a great article on search engine results page design and how it’s plain difficult to get it right (right = [...]

  6. Keith Instone Says:

    Mike Moran comments on his blog – http://www.mikemoran.com/biznology/archives/2008/07/do_site_searchers_want_one_ans.html

  7. What Is A Searcher Searching For? » UIE Brain Sparks Says:

    [...] On his Biznology blog, search expert Mike Moran (author of the great book Do It Wrong Quickly), commented on my recent article about how people search, Producing Great Search Results: Harder than It Looks – Part 1. [...]

  8. Mr B Says:

    @Aldra, not sure I agree with you here. In the site http://www.huxley.com I designed we had the option to email a friend in the serp (search results page). This was based on the fact that there is a description of the job and usually a description job headline which would be enough for a user to recommend to someone. Having said that I do see your point and expect people will use the link of the actually job page more. We will be monitoring our stats closely to see if this feature is used.

  9. Alan James Salmoni Says:

    An interesting article Jared. It’s surprising that information search isn’t given more prominence in usability work but I guess the problem is trying to make people understand why it’s important. Bounce rates can be awfully helpful.

    I’ve made a blog entry of my own partially in response to this article but also detailing my own PhD research into information search from the human perspective. You can view it at http://usernumber1journal.blogspot.com/2008/07/producing-great-search-results-comments.html. There are some pieces of information that those interested in information search might find useful (a simple metric to measure the accuracy of relevance judgement, tips on what to present to users to get the best search, and my own joy with searching for airline flights – certainly an area in which we should all be getting lots of work).

  10. Search Engines/Target Your Audience | JUST SAY IT Says:

    [...] User Interface Engineering. Read the full post [...]

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