Search is a ubiquitous term we use freely and imprecisely. By understanding the different types of search and user behaviours around search, we can design better content structure to support better search.

This article will review these concepts:

  • Search engine search
  • On-site search
  • How search engines have warped site search expectations
  • Search vs browse
  • Supporting different information-seeking pathways

Search Engine Search

Often times when talking about search, we are referring to searching on Google, Bing, or Yahoo. (Yes, Bing and Yahoo still exist!) This search is external to any website and indexes and searches the whole web for appropriate results. It shows results to users based on top-secret algorithms.

Organizations can try to influence the search result rankings with search engine optimization (SEO) based around keywords and good site structure as well as many other unknown factors. Last we checked, Google had 300 ways to rank websites.

On-Site Search

This is the lesser known of the two types of search we’re covering in this article. This is the search that uses the search box on a particular website. For example, has a search box where users can type in a search term and get a result.

The content management system that powers the website has a search application that indexes the site and returns results to the users. When we work on projects and hear the constant refrain, “Search sucks,” it’s this search that people are referring to.

Why does on-site search suck? There are many ways to implement search applications and often they are implemented by developers who aren’t given requirements around what search should do and what results should be returned. Search is given little attention in the whole website design process because people assume it will “just work.”

Unfortunately this isn’t the case; it actually takes a lot of configuration and professionals (such as information architects and developers) trained in search implementation.

Search Engines Have Warped Our Minds

Let’s step back and think about why Google and Bing search engines work so well: these companies have hundreds (if not thousands) of employees working on search and search results. These companies are motivated to improve search and understand search terms to achieve total world domination.

Short of that, they’re motivated to return accurate search results in order to make money by showing appropriate advertisements. They collect loads of textual and non-textual data through all their applications, apply natural language processing and understanding, build knowledge graphs to model all the information and knowledge in the world, and they use all this to inform their search results.

All you have to do is type into a box and you get a result.

Thinking about the on-site search of your organization, what do you do to maintain search?

  • Do you review search terms and optimize for these terms?
  • Do you have a taxonomy that’s used in the search application?
  • Do you use synonyms and keywords to improve search?
  • Which UX professional works with the search developer to continually improve search?
  • Do you do any user testing on search?

If you don’t have answers to these questions, it’s probably no surprise that users complain, “Search sucks.”

Search vs Browse

Search and browse can both be supported on your site. By “browse” we mean users accessing the navigation or on-page content to find content. It’s important to set the expectation that your organization’s website will need both search AND browse to support the user experience.

Why do you need both?

  • Users don’t know what they don’t know. If they’re new to the subject or domain, they need help starting their information-seeking journey.
  • Users can have a hard time formulating a search query. If they aren’t familiar with terminology or the domain, typing in the right words can be difficult.
  • Remembering the right keywords is harder than seeing potentially relevant keywords.
  • Users are really awful at reformulating search terms and don’t understand advanced searching.*
  • On-site search is often poorly implemented, especially on Intranets, so it’s important to provide a browse path.
  • Search is useful when someone knows a particular keyword or is looking for a specific topic.
  • A search box supports specific queries and supports a Q&A style of information-seeking.

Supporting Different Information-Seeking Pathways

There’s a famous research paper by Marcia Bates on Berrypicking. (It’s famous in information science, and we’re pretty sure it’s famous outside of the field, and we’re supplying the URL just in case you lost it.)

Bates wrote this article in 1989 and it’s withstood the test of time. Her image explains how the path from formulating a query to finding the answer isn’t a direct path. People spend time (T) wander ingaround, reformulate their queries (Q), try different terms and approaches, seek out information from different sources, until they eventually understand more and more and have answered their question (E).

It’s not one query, one answer. It’s multiple queries that lead to an answer, over time.

Berry picking path

When we think about the user journey or customer journey, we need both browse and search to support this berrypicking method. Users start out without a clear understanding of terminology and subject matter. Browse and navigation and on-page content helps users understand the domain. As they learn more, they know terms and can start using search to pinpoint specific items.

How We Can Advocate for Search and Browse

In your work in your organization or on website and intranet redesigns, when you start to suspect an over-reliance on search, push back! Use the reasons given above:

  • Users have a hard time searching when they don’t understand the domain
  • Users are typically bad at searching
  • Search is often poorly implemented
  • Excellent site structure and a user-centred design will improve both the user experience and search results
  • Taxonomy is essential to improving search results

*Note on Search Ability

It’s essential that we debunk the myth that searching and getting accurate and relevant search results is easy for people.

In my career, I’ve seen only a few groups of people who are good at searching: legal professionals, librarians, and information scientists. These groups are trained to use search. In school, we learn how to use different types of advance searching tools. And it’s essential to keep up these skills as we work in the profession. For example, for legal professionals, finding accurate search results can be critical to their legal arguments.

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