Website search – “Must do better!”

Although most of my projects are internal enterprise search engagements I have just been assessing the website search of a major consulting firm. One of the elements of the project was to compare the website search against those of other professional services firms, The results were very depressing. In total I looked at around 20 firms, and the consistent message was that website search is not important enough to pay any attention to, even though to me the quality if the search experience is an indicator of how important the firm regards attracting new clients. This is because for a professional services firm the major challenge in a highly competitive market has to be finding new clients or new business from existing clients.

As I look through my notes there are some common problems with the sites.

  • Almost invisible search boxes tucked away on the edge of the page
  • Search box either too short or opens up Google-like on a new page with no warning or search help notes
  • Very little date information on the results and no ability to sort by date to show off how much recent information the firm had available
  • No highlighting of query terms in the results summaries
  • Filters and facets in abundance with little consideration of their value in focusing in on highly relevant information
  • A common filter is file format, which assumes that “web pages” (for example) are of especial importance to search users
  • Poor expertise search. All too often “people search” is primarily a name search feature
  • Very limited use of promoted content to highlight core firm capabilities

Those are of course common to many websites but when I consider the amount of investment in the design of the website and the consultant hours spent on writing briefing notes etc for publication on the website I do wonder why there is invariably not the slightest sense of user centricity about the site and about the role that search should play vis-a-vis the navigation.

A specific problem I came up against was the way in which query terms which are noun adjuncts are handled. For example [risk management], [corporate finance] and [interim management]. Most professional services firms (and it is the same with universities) use these two word noun phrases quite extensively. Of course in a perfect world site visitors would use quotation marks as a proximity function. However my experience with some university websites suggests that search users may be assuming that they can query [chemical engineering] and the search engine will be smart enough either to check “Did you mean School of Chemical Engineering?” or to have promoted content that is specific to the School of Chemical Engineering just in case. These are the sort of issues that user testing and high-quality search log analysis will uncover, but in website search and in enterprise search the lack of commitment to search evaluation is usually very obvious.

As well as the wealth of material on the Nielsen Norman Group site (though it’s not the best example of site search!) Chapter 9 in Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond is a very well-written 50page overview of the business case for website search and implementation good practice.

Martin White