Is search a dirty word?

posted on March 18th, 2011 by Anthony

Our main council site is pretty big. Several thousand standard pages, loads of dynamic apps, umpteen sections. Setting a navigation system for this sort of sprawling mass of data is something our team is constantly trying to improve.

We try to keep the traditional navigation as lean as possible. It would be far too easy to overload it with tons and tons of top level categories making it far too big, and far too confusing. It’s a balancing act, and not everyone is going to be happy with it. If we were being honest we’d be the first to admit that our current choice is far from perfect – but equally I’m not sure perfect exists.

That is why we have always tried to push search as the most prominent and efficient way to find information. We’ve devoted a fairly large block of premium home page space to a massive search box. And we coloured it bright orange.

The search is powered by a paid for use of Google’s Custom Search API. It lacks some bells and whistles (for a couple of reasons) but it is the same highly accurate search you would expect from Google.

That, to us, seems very sensible.

Users

With such a large site, with many areas of specialised knowledge, the majority of content on the site is produced by trained content editors. They are great, they do a vital job and we’d be lost without them. Occasionally they also provide some interesting feedback.

A few days back one of the editors came up to see someone in the team to review their content. They were busily getting on with what they were doing, I was busily getting on with what I was doing. Then I overheard this exchange:

Editor: “I don’t really like the site”
Colleague: “Why? What’s wrong with it?”
Editor: “I can’t find our section. It’s not on the front page. On our old site it was always on the front page”
Colleague: “OK… have you tried the search?”

*Colleague taps in the single word section name – Boom. Top result and a massive highlighted result for good measure*

Editor: “Oh no I don’t like using the search.”
Me: *Head splodes*
Me: “Excuse me, sorry for butting in… er why don’t you like using the search?”
Editor (looking a bit startled): “Oh, errr, I don’t know really… I just don’t?”
Me: “Sorry, I am genuinely interested in why you don’t like it. It is the best way of finding stuff.”
Editor: “I suppose I prefer clicking and scrolling and looking for it”
Me: *Head splodes*
Me: “OK… so when you go to Amazon and you’re looking for a book, what do you do then?”
Editor: “Oh then I use the search… But that’s different.”
Me: Head *splodes*.

Baffled

That genuinely surprised me, although it probably shouldn’t have. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this sort of thing. One of my favourites is:

“Oh I couldn’t find X so I *had* to use the search”

Had to use the search, had to.

It seems that for some sites a search function is not seen by users as great way to finding the information they want. In fact it is actually seen as a last resort that somehow displays that the website has failed them.

It’s an interesting point of psychology that for some sites, such as Amazon, search is seen as such a natural and obvious tool for a user to use. Whereas with other sites the search is seen as something almost negative.

You would think with Google being such a day-to-day part of life for practically every single web user that search would be a very natural habit for all users. (Although there is that evidence that a lot of people see Google as being the internet).

What is it that makes a person want to use a site’s search facility? Or do they do it without thinking?

Is it a perception of a site’s size? A perception of the end product being worthy of typing in a few characters? Is it simply down to design cues that leads users that way? (It’s well known that Amazon spends huge amounts of time and research honing the minutest of details of their site to maximise purchases, so that seems sensible).

It’s probably a combination of all these things, but it’s certainly something I’m going to think more about in the future. It’s also something I’d like to do a bit of research into… though I’m not sure where to start with that.