I’m certainly not a search engine expert, but here at Mediabarn we’ve already conducted several usability tests in 2011 in which searching within a site has been a primary user task. Across these studies we have uncovered a few findings that we wanted to share.
Google has made it so easy to conduct a search that we have been spoiled to expect the same level of service within a website. Theoretically most site-specific search engines should have an easier time of returning desired results because the amount of data or items accessible through the site is limited to the site itself.
However, following are a handful of basic observations we have made of users related to site searches and ways in which searching could be improved:
– The biggest complaint we hear consistently from users is that returned results are not relevant to the search. Even when typing in keywords, users are often frustrated that search engines return lengthy lists of results that have to be scrutinized for relevance and often do not contain a single useful link. Almost worse is when relevant results are buried in the list without the ability to sort to find them.
– Users are accustomed to typing in keywords, but they don’t always spell them correctly. Search engines must be robust enough to interpret what users mean, not just what they type. For example, users still expect to see appropriate results whether they type in “swimsuit,” “simsiut,” or “swim suit.”
– The information displayed within search results must be detailed enough for users to be able to choose between items, yet not so detailed that the results list is overwhelming. In addition, offer the option to alter the number of results displayed per page.
– Some of our clients have made attempts to create navigational buttons or filters for their search engines in an attempt to help users find desired results. Filters aren’t always utilized, but the ability to sort results is really helpful. Most users do not take the time to use advanced search tools or filters to narrow their results, even when those options are readily available. However, once a long list of results is returned based on keywords, users want the ability to quickly sort the results by several relevant factors. Depending on the contents of the site, this could include price (high to low and low to high), features (such as size, color, etc.), brand, author, date, etc.
Although these are fairly basic issues, they have been observed as real and affecting the user experience. The general rule of thumb is to offer the most robust search capabilities possible while limiting the amount of effort required of users to search.