The Fundamentals of Quality Search

The Internet is about publishing, and every web site is a publication. A reader approaches a publication with two fundamental needs. The first is to find some specific piece of information. The second is to be given an opinion — to be informed as to what is important content today, this week, this month.

When a reader has in mind a specific piece of content that he or she wants from a publication, the activity used to find that information is either navigating a classification (clicking through a set of links) or using a search process. What I’d like to explore here is how a web site can improve the way it allows its readers to search.

Let me start by saying that in my experience most web sites do a really bad job with their search facilities. Even though searching is one of the most frequent activities we do on the web, a great many web sites deal with their search engines in a haphazard way. I’m not alone in feeling frustrated. A recent survey by found that 71 percent of people who use the Internet said they were frustrated by web searches and 46 percent found them nerve-racking.

A quality search process begins with quality metadata. Basically it’s that old principle: Garbage in, garbage out. No matter how good your search engine is, if you don’t structure and organize your content well, the results the reader gets will be poor, particularly if you have a lot of content on your web site. Metadata is about giving your content structure.

The better you structure and classify your content as you create it, the easier it is to design a very powerful and effective search. For example, if every document is assigned keywords, the reader will get a much more accurate return from his or her search. If you classify all content by geography, the reader can search for content that relates to a specific country or region.

Here are some guidelines for designing a basic search feature for your web site:

  1. Since search is such a common activity, the search box should appear on every page of your web site. Don’t hide it behind a link.

  2. The search box, where the reader enters his or her search query, should be large enough to allow a minimum of 20 characters to be entered.
  3. The ideal font for the search box is Arial because it is a narrow font and allows the reader to enter more characters.
  4. The font size in the box should be 10 points and no smaller than 8 points.
  5. To the right of the search box should be a button labeled “Search.”
  6. The search should begin with either the touch of the return key or the click of the “Search” button.
  7. If you offer an advanced search option, a text link labeled “Advanced Search” should appear underneath the search box.
  8. The initial target of the basic search should be the contents of the entire web site.
  9. The basic search should allow for Boolean commands (“and,” “or”), although this does not need to be explained.

Next week I’ll examine how to design an advanced search process and best display search results.

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