In my previous posts on information architecture components, I mentioned that information architecture components can be divided into four categories: organization systems, labeling systems, navigation systems, and search systems. I described organization systems, labeling systems, and navigation systems in my previous posts. In today's post, I am going to describe search systems.
Before creating a search system for your site, consider the following questions:
Does your site have enough content? - Consider the volume of content, balancing the time required to set up and maintain a search system with payoff it will bring to your site users. If your site includes many pages with information, then search probably makes sense.
Will investing in search systems divert resources from navigation systems? - If your navigation systems do not work properly and you are trying to solve this problem, do not implement your search system until you fixed your navigation system's problems.
Do you have the time and know-how to optimize your site's search system? - If you don't plan on putting some significant time into configuring your search engine properly, reconsider your decision to implement it.
Are there better alternatives? - If you don't have a technical expertise or money to configure the search engine, consider creating a site index instead.
Will your site's users bother with search? - for example, users of greeting cards site may prefer to browse thumbnails of cards instead of searching.
Choosing What to Search
Indexing everything does not serve users well. The creation of search zones, pockets of homogeneous content, allows users to focus their searches. For example, users of e-commerce site would be interested to search products. You could later create another search option covering the whole site.
Search zones are subsets of a web site that have been indexed separately from the rest of the site's content. You can create search zones in as many ways as you can logically group them. The decisions you made in selecting your site's organization schemes often helps you to determine search zones as well. Search zones could be: content type, audience, role, subject/topic, geography, chronology, author, department/business unit. Like browsing systems, search zones allow a large body of content to be divided in new ways, providing users with multiple views of the site and its content.
Web sites contain at least two major types of pages: navigation pages and destination pages. Destination pages contain actual information you want from a web site. Navigation pages include main pages, search pages, and pages that help to browse the site. Search should take users to destination pages. Navigation pages should not be included in the search results.
It is valuable to allow users to search specific components of your documents. This would allow users to retrieve more specific, precise results. This can also make search results more meaningful.
A guideline to display search results is to display less information to users who know what they are looking for (for example, only author and title), and more information to users who are not sure what they looking for (for example, summary, abstract, keywords). You can also provide users with a choice of what to display. Consider your users information needs when making this decision. If in doubt, show more information.
Regardless of how many ways you indicate that there are more results than fit on one screen, many if not all users will not go past that first screen. So, don't provide too much content per result, as the first few results may obscure the rest of the retrieval. However, let users know the total number of retrieved documents so that they have a sense of how many documents remain as they browse through the search results. Also, provide a navigation system to move through these search results.
If there are too many results, provide an option of revising and narrowing search results. Locate "revise search" link next to the number of search results. Too many or to few search results are both good opportunities to allow users to revise their searches. Allow users to modify the search without re-entering it.
There are three methods for the listing search results: sorting, ranking, and clustering.
Retrieval results can be sorted chronologically by date or alphabetically by any content type - title, author, department. Sorting is helpful to those users who are looking to make a decision or to take an action (for example, list of products). Sort option should be the one that would help them to accomplish this task. Chronological sorting is useful if content is time sensitive, for example, press releases. It is very useful for presenting historical data.
Ranking is more useful when there is a need to understand information or learn something. It is typically used to describe retrieved documents' relevance, from most to least. Approach ranking carefully as users will assume that the top results are the best. Retrieval results can be ranked by relevance, by popularity, by users or experts rating, and by pay-for-placement.
Alternative approach to sorting and ranking is clustering retrieved results by some common aspect, for example, by category or by a ranked list. These clusters provide context for search results by providing the folder that seems to fit users' interest best. In addition, they are working with a significantly smaller retrieval set and a set of documents that come from the same topical domain. There are two types of clusters: automatically derived clusters and cluster based on categories created by human "experts".
Explain to users what they did and where results came from. Describe what content was searched, what filters were applied, any current settings, like sort order, etc.
Present users with the ability to save, print or email results. A type of "shopping cart" can be used to store selected search results.
It is best to keep your search interface as simple as possible: present users with a simple search box and search button. A good place to place the search box is next to site-wide navigation system at the top of the page. Be consistent in placing the search box. Determining what your users' assumption are should drive the default settings that you set up when designing the simple search interface.
You may also have advanced search interface. It should allow the manipulation of search results. This interface is typically used by advanced searchers and frustrated searchers.
Search is iterative process. Allow users to move back and forth between browsing and searching.
Adopt a "no dead ends" policy. It means that users always have another option even if they retrieve zero results. The option can consist of means of revising the search, search tips or other advice on ow to improve the search, means for browsing, a human contact of searching and browsing does not work.