Nine tips to manage search success

Search can be a user’s strategy, a last resort, or a point of failure for a Web site. 

Google supports a limited set of user behaviours, and gains much of its power from having huge amounts of data on which to carry out statistical analysis. A different approach is needed to design search within a Web site; an approach based on an understanding of what users are looking for and why, and how they develop their search strategy.

Here are 9 tips to help your users achieve search success on your site.

1. Design for your users’ search goals and tasks
The big trend we’ve seen is that it is no longer enough to rely on a powerful search engine. Web strategists are explicitly managing search on their sites – not leaving it up to software. This is because they recognise that search is a human task, not a database
function. They realize that good service means more than just having
good algorithms – it means understanding and supporting users’ goals
and tasks. Sometimes, this demands labour-intensive effort, but often
it can be achieved through better design. In either case, helping users
find what they need can only improve your site’s performance.

2. Index pages that give value as a search result
One page is not like another. Consider which pages will be useful as results for users’ searches, and only index those. These might be most of your ‘leaf-node’ content pages,
but might also include some ‘hub’ pages, from which users can access
other pages, with a level of confidence in what they will find there.
Remember that users who have searched ‘parachute in’ to a page, and
therefore need to find good navigation on that page that does not rely
on them having followed a path. 

3. Ensure task-oriented search terms get results
Users sometimes search with words and phrases
which are not those used by Web content authors. It may take a while
to get all your authors to write user-friendly content. In the meantime,
you should at least understand user terminology.

Scan the terms users type into your search engine, or get them from your web statistics for users arriving at your site from external search engines. Modify your terminology
to match your users’. Track what users say to your helpline staff, then
make sure that those terms are successful, by ensuring they are on the
appropriate target pages, by putting them into the keyword metatags
on pages, or by using synonyms in the search engine.

4. Design “target pages” specifically for priority searches
Web site architecture and navigation must
be designed with users’ goals and needs in mind. But with regard to
search, you can take this one step further.

  • Take a good-sized sample of searches carried out on your site.
  • Group them by the kinds of user tasks they represent.
  • Then walk through that search task as though you were a user.
  • Ensure there is an obvious “target page” for that group of searches.
  • And ensure that that page comes high on the list of results for those searches.
  • Ensure that the search results summary of the target page is well-distinguished from other pages on the search results.
  • Ensure that that page provides navigation to help users continue their journey if they want to.

5. Integrate browsing into search
We see an important trend where what looks like browsing is in part “search behind the scenes”, and where search integrates support for browsing.

Allow users to browse the
results of a search in more than one way.
Use
metadata from the results to provide browsing options. For example,
provide search results categorised by type of document, by section of
the site, by product category or-even better-by the types of user needs,
tasks and goals they support. Allow users to browse the results in each
category. See Example 1 below (from Futureshop) which uses metadata
to create a mini browse hierarchy which users can explore.


Example 1: Navigable mini-browse
hierarchy on a set of search results (Futureshop)

6. Augment search results with extended site navigation
Even when searching, users are still interested
in useful navigation links. Providing navigation links together with
search results can also help users understand the structure of your
site. If a user has decided to search on your site, it may be because
your standard navigation didn’t provide the “scent of information”
they were looking for. To allow for this, you might provide more than
just standard navigation on a search results page – a more detailed
view, closer to a site map. You might also provide links to topics related
to the search term, or highlight popular results.

7. No dead ends!
There is rarely no answer to a question. But
users often get ‘no results’ in response to a query on a Web site. There
are usually ways to prevent this happening and to ensure that users
find the things they’re looking for, and the things you need them to
find.

Use metadata to provide a ‘look-ahead’ function
(see Example 2). When you provide results, give a count of how many
‘hits’ there are in each category of results. By clicking on one of
those links users are, in effect, carrying out a refined, predefined
search. But they know it will be a successful search, and you may even
have helped them find better words or phrases.

If there should be ‘no results’, then this
is not the end of a user task, but actually the beginning of a new phase
of navigation that is trickier to support, because it’s suddenly context-free.
You might suggest synonyms for failed search terms that would give positive
results and new ideas to the user. Providing some detailed navigation
links on the results page might help the user kick-start their information-seeking
task again, rather than leave your site.

8. Provide multi-faceted views for search and search results
Most information can be classified in more
than one way. Too often, Web sites provide only one classification,
and this classification is based on an internal perspective rather than
a user perspective. Different people will be searching your site for
different reasons. Support these differences by providing multiple ways
to search and giving multiple views onto search results, so that users
can pick the most appropriate. Base those views on key user needs or
tasks.

9. Support search-related tasks
Finding search results is not the end of a
user’s task. It’s a means to an end. Bear in mind the user goals that
prompted them to search your site, and think about how you can support
those tasks. 

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