When I talk with customers about website problems, I frequently hear the refrains:

“Our website search is terrible. People tell us it sucks. We need to fix it.”

“I can’t find anything on the website and the search doesn’t give me what I am expecting.”

These customers are ready to take the next step to improve their website. Instead of diving in to make changes, they are ready to research what’s not work and make deliberate choices for improving their websites. Whether it’s an intranet that serves employees, a website that supports healthcare needs, or a member-driven website that serves authoritative content, site search often doesn’t work well. Investigating search problems can help you make the right choices for improving a website.

There are a few areas where we can look to investigate search problems. Normally, I start with user interviews and testing, then move on to reviewing site analytics, metadata, and taxonomy.

Uncovering Search Problems in Usability Testing

You can employ usability testing as a tool to help with discovering search problems and what users hope to find when using the search box. With a good test plan, you can focus your testing around scenarios to see if the users can successfully move through the scenarios to find the knowledge they are looking for.

Want to know more about usability testing? Read Usability Testing Offers Insight into Website Problems.

While a lot of user testing can focus on interactions, when you’re testing on search you’ll need to focus on metadata, taxonomy, and search results. If you’ve given a user a scenario, you might find that they browse or search for the information. We are looking to see how they find what they’re interested in so we can see if the website design (including the search) supports what the user wants to do.

Site Search Analytics

Site search analytics essentially keep track of everything that users have searched for on your site. When diagnosing search problems, you can ask these questions of your site search analytics:

  • Are search analytics enabled on our site?
  • What are the most frequent searches? Perform those searches to see what comes up. Are these the right results?
  • What are some misspellings and how does our search tool deal with these?
  • What are some synonyms and does the search tool redirect users to the appropriate results?
  • What are some long tail words? Are any of these long tail words be combined with other terms to make a more frequent search?

There’s a good book called Search Analytics for Your Site by Lou Rosenfeld. It’s an easy to consume and incredibly useful book. I highly recommend it!

Metadata and Taxonomy

To determine if you have metadata and taxonomy problems on your site, you can ask the following questions:

  • Are we using metadata and taxonomy?
  • If we are using metadata and taxonomy, are we applying it consistently?
  • Are we enabling the users to search for information via the metadata and taxonomy?
  • How well are our metadata and taxonomy tools implemented?
  • What are the attributes that improve the search results on the site? How is our site employing these attributes?

Determining the problems with your metadata and taxonomy can point to ways that users fumble through your content.

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