Site search: Nice feature or not?

Posted by , August 19th, 2008 at 6:16 am PST
Categories: Site Search | No Comments »

I saw this question posed on Marchiahoo’s blog and I felt it deserved a response. My first response – is that if you’re going to ask questions on your blog then you should allow comments!

The author has being reading Steven Krug’s book “Don’t Make Me Think” and was questioning his assertion that site search was necessary. The reason for this was because she had read a newsletter from FutureNow: So You Think You Need an In-Site Search Engine? This newsletter quotes some comments from usability expert Jared Spool recommending that you should avoid site search because it normally doesn’t work and that people search only if the navigation is broken and doesn’t give people what they want.

I remember when Jared first started saying this years ago – I wrote a rant to him saying that the solution to broken search is to fix the search not to remove it. Apparently he got swamped by search vendors but didn’t change his opinion immediately. He seems to have softened his opinion on site search now but is advocating manually tuning results to ensure they are relevant. This approach is fine for the most popular queries but can turn into a maintenance nightmare if it’s overused or misused- you don’t want to the promotion you did for “small black ipod” in 2003 to still be active now.

Wouldn’t it be good if the search could learn from the people who use it and kept getting better? That would save the majority of the manual tweaks. It could be called Learning Search 🙂

As to the assertion that people only search when the navigation is broken – I think it is too much to expect that the navigation will work for everyone. Jared asserts that if you use the right language in your navigation then it will provide the information scent for them to follow it. This is fine – but we see from the search logs that there is a huge variety of language that is used on any site – because there is a huge variety of people. Links that provide the correct information scent for one person won’t work for another. I think it would be impossible for all but the smallest of sites to satisfy all of its visitors by navigation alone. We serve over 100 million site search queries per month – I can’t believe our customers would be better off not having a site search.

So as to the question – is site search a nice feature or not. I don’t think it’s a nice feature – I agree with Krug – it’s absolutely necessary.


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