Simpler website searches can give better results
There are some types of websites where it seems almost expected that some kind of ‘advanced search’ facility is needed. But, in many cases, this creates more problems than it solves.
- by Peter Labrow
When developing a new website, it’s all too easy to be drawn into the trap of over-egging the functionality in the belief that extra features will set you apart from the competition.
In some circumstances, that can be true – but in most, extra features can actually make your website harder to use and turn people away.
Let’s look at a typical example. On content managed websites, we will almost always include a website search. If that website handles large volumes of a specific type of data – let’s say ‘jobs’ in the case of a recruitment website – then we’d likely also have some way of searching or browsing just the jobs.
This makes sense because, on a recruitment website, most visitors will primarily be interested in the jobs – having a dedicated search tunes out all of the positioning pages, making it easier to find a job.
So, now we have two searches. On a practical level, we need to ensure that it’s clear to visitors what the differences between the two searches are. One way to do this would be to separate the two searches visually, so they are on different sides of the page. Another would be to use design elements to make them clearly different
A website search should be located within the main navigation, so it becomes associated with the site’s overall pages. We should label it clearly as ‘site search’. Since the job search is located with all of the associated job navigation, and labelling it ‘find jobs’ makes its purpose clear.
There’s a couple of really important things to note:
- There is seldom a real need for an advanced search.
- Jobs should also be found by browsing to them.
Why no advanced search?
Recruitment companies (more than most others) are often obsessed by the notion of having an advanced search. But, most of the time, for most of the visitors, it’s simply not needed.
- Our Web statistics show that only a very tiny percentage of people actually use the advanced search – typically just 1% or 2%. So, a disproportionate amount of time and money is spent developing complex functionality that seldom gets used – poor value indeed.
- Usability studies also show that having a search and advanced search is confusing for most visitors. It makes them stop and think – asking questions such as “what’s the difference between the two searches?”, “does the normal search not find the same things then?” – and so on. Forcing users to think is a bad thing, which often results in them giving up rather than choosing. Also, the term ‘advanced search’ is often interpreted as ‘complicated search’ – which just puts people off. Remember, people come to your site to find things quickly. While your intentions when implementing an advanced search may be good, it actually makes finding things harder work for the user (in terms of requiring a greater number of choices to be made).
Why browse to jobs when it’s easier to search?
There are also several good reasons to allow people to browse to jobs. Many recruitment companies dislike browsing features because they take up quite a bit of screen space (compared to a search box) and because they believe that most people prefer to search.
- Just over half of people are ‘search dominant’ – meaning that they prefer to find things by searching. This means that, if you can’t browse to jobs, you’re not properly catering for almost half of your visitors, who prefer to find things in that way.
- Search engines can’t make search queries (yet) and follow the results of a search. So, if all of your jobs can only be found by searching, search engines can’t find or index them.
The information which helps people to find jobs by browsing (such as location or industry) also helps search engines when indexing the jobs, so that they know that the job as a ‘Flash Developer’ is in the ‘Telecoms’ industry and is located in the ‘Home counties’ – making it much more likely to be found on a search engine search.
It’s all based on the context
In most cases, the advanced search won’t be needed, but it does come into its own when there are large volumes of data which need to be broken down – so it’s not that the advanced search never has a place on the website, but unless you have thousands (or more) items to present to users, it isn’t usually needed.
So, our advice is typically:
- Don’t implement an advanced search unless you have large volumes of data. With small amounts of data, many of the advanced searches – which refine things to a group of very specific options – will result in nothing being found, which is frustrating for the user.
- Don’t implement an advanced search if it can be avoided. Make the standard search deliver back all the expected results, and perhaps offer a couple of options on the standard search to remove the need for two types of searches.
- If you do implement an advanced search, consider hiding it until it is needed. For example, don’t have it as an option on the main search, but include it on the research results with a heading such as ‘Didn’t find what you were looking for? Try narrowing your search down.’
- Make sure your website search also searches – and returns results from – any specific searches (such as jobs). The specific search should not return results from the rest of the site, but the opposite is not true.
Websites are about content – any functionality is there solely to enable people to get to that content in the most effective way. There’s no need to get carried away with complicated ways of achieving this.
You are not trying to please all of the people, all of the time. Good usability is about providing an excellent experience to most of the people, most of the time. Keeping it simple helps.