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I've had this nagging feeling for quite some time that much web development time is wasted in designing and developing search boxes that are never used beyond the developers and testers.

a mockup of a standard webpage layout

With browsers implementing search bars themselves, I rarely use web-page level search boxes, with the exceptions of search engines and online stores. For blogs and informational websites, I often don't trust the built-in search to return better results than I'd get from Google.

Is there any research to suggest that it's important to implement a search feature internally within a website?

What are the usability trade-offs if it's left out?

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For me, it depends on the website. If the search is good, like on Amazon, I will use their search. If the search is crappy, I will type this into Google: "something". – JoJo Mar 3 '12 at 18:09
I feel like I can never find what I'm looking for with a search box. Maybe that's just me... – Dynamic Mar 4 '12 at 2:20
very important!!? – Ebenezar Nov 15 '13 at 12:02
Log how many times the search box is used. Different type of applications will see different usage patterns. – Pacerier Feb 6 '14 at 13:26

12 Answers 12

up vote 23 down vote accepted

No matter how perfect your site hierarchy and navigation is, some users won't understand it. Or they don't want to learn it.

For those users, a search box is paramount, because that's the primary way they use the web. To them search is navigation.

Rather than exclude those users from your site, leave in the search box. It doesn't hurt the usability or appeal of the site for people that don't use it.

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+1 Search is not only useful for "some users that won't understand", but also for users that perfectly understand the site's structure and navigation but don't want to have to click through several levels to get to the information they want. – Marjan Venema Mar 2 '12 at 18:12
my concern is that more often than not, site-level search is poorly implemented, and would require about as much "click-through" to get to the desired result. – zzzzBov Mar 2 '12 at 18:45
@zzzzBov That's why I often resort to doing a google site specific search. For example searchterm – Marjan Venema Mar 3 '12 at 10:47
@zzzzBov just because something is often done wrong doesn't mean doing you can't do it right. – J. Jeffryes Mar 5 '12 at 18:15

In short: Depends on the context. If the site belongs to a business: Very important.

I'm not aware of evidence suggesting the your premise that search boxes are only used by developers and testers is true.

I would argue that there is little point of having a generic Google search box displayed on your page, unless your business model relies on your site being used as a portal. Many internet providers still do this on their pages and suggest this as a default home pages for their users.

In-browser search (ie ctrl+f) will just search for strings on the page you're looking at, so that's not sufficient usually. Leaving the page for a search engine doesn't limit the scope to the site you looked at last unless you use type syntax to limit your search. Few of the users you want to help with the search box would know how to use this though, so it's not helpful if the user wants to find the information on that site, rather than on any site.

From a business perspective you don't want people leaving your site to do an external search! It's quite possible that your competitors may appear higher in the list of results. Your search function should ultimately bring users closer to a sale, or the information they're looking for, without them having to leave the site. This is just as true for information sites that may make money with advertising (pageviews!) as with eCommerce sites that make money with products.

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"In-browser search (ie ctrl+f) will just search for strings on the page" what relevance does this have to the question? I was referencing the search box (sometimes built into the location bar) in the browser. It's also visible on the mockup I posted. – zzzzBov Mar 2 '12 at 18:48
@zzzzBov There are two kinds of built in browser searches - web search e.g. Google and inside page search, Joe's answer correctly mentioned both. – Danny Varod Mar 2 '12 at 18:52
@zzzzBov The relevance to the question is that without a site-based search, users will be limited to searching only the page that they're on, which is of course a completely different kind of search. Not to put words in Joe's mouth, but I believe that whole paragraph contains the tradeoffs you asked about. – jcmeloni Mar 2 '12 at 18:55
Yes, that's why I mentioned it. – Joe Dreimann Mar 2 '12 at 19:37

A bit of data, albeit a little old, from the venerable Jakob Nielsen:

Our usability studies show that more than half of all users are search-dominant, about a fifth of the users are link-dominant, and the rest exhibit mixed behavior. (Search Usability, July 1997)

Unless that number has changed dramatically over the last decade, a good number of users are potential searchers. Omitting a search feature entirely could sorely disappoint such users.

Update (thanks, zzzzBov): The age of that data is troubling, but in an Alertbox from 2005, Nielsen makes an interesting point (I can't believe I'm quoting Nielsen twice in one day):

Earlier guidelines for search usability continue to hold, and are becoming even more important with the new mental model. The dominant search engines comply with all the main usability guidelines, which is obviously a major reason that they're on top. Today, the guidelines don't just describe good search; they describe expected search. (Mental Models For Search Are Getting Firmer, May 2005)

In other words, because of the rise of Google et al., users expect a search box whenever they need one that lets them type in any term and magically get to just what they're looking for. Omitting the search box, then, runs the risk of violating users expectations.

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The date concerns me significantly. Google didn't exist in 1997. Searching has been outsourced to the browser and service providers (google, yahoo, bing, youtube, amazon, newegg, etc) depending on what you're searching for. The internet has come an enormous distance in the last 15 years. – zzzzBov Mar 2 '12 at 18:42
Just for comparison: google has come a long way in the last 14 years. I've spent a significant amount of time reading Nielsen's advice on various topics, however he has a tendency to make blanket statements without providing any rigorous scientific evidence that proves what he says is true (although much of it is highly accurate). – zzzzBov Mar 2 '12 at 22:01
@zzzzBov: I believe the two quotes cited here are based on user testing performed by Nielsen and crew, so presumably they have data (albeit not public data) to back their assertions up. He does seem fond of blanket statements, though, so your specific situation may vary. – Niq Mar 2 '12 at 22:11
The question also reminded me of this old Nielsen dictum. Does anybody know of independent data or more recent studies on this? – Gala Mar 3 '12 at 14:16

The search box is often one of the most overlooked, and neglected parts of the user experience.

From a data mining perspective, every time someone types a single thing into that search box, they are giving you insight into how they see and think about your site.

From a sales/business side, mapping those searches to your site content, and presenting unique experiences is what can be the difference from a good or a GREAT site.


Amazon, predictive input reduces your likelihood of every performing a search with no results.

Zappos, search on a brand, and you get taken to a customized results page solely focused on that brand.

The easiest way I think of it is make sure your search experience supports wide and narrow searches. Tune your content accordingly (blog - make sure articles are found, appear high in results) (e-commerce - products map to the broad cross-section of keywords).

Monitor your analytics, and watch conversion/time on site stats jump!


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Additionally, if you remove the site search box, you're sacrificing FOR YOURSELF a key source of knowledge of what your users want from the site: the ability to analyze their on-site searches.

No place else on your site can you understand in words exactly what they think they'll find someplace in there.

Highly recommend Lou Rosenfeld's "Site Search Analytics" text.

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Can you link to the article/book and explain why it's so highly recommended? – dnbrv Mar 2 '12 at 20:57

A search option should be provided on all pages where it may be useful -- users should not have to return to the homepage to conduct a search. Search engines can be helpful on content-rich websites, but do not add value on other types of sites.

The search box is not a substitute for good content organization.

According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services this is in the top tier of importance on Websites. There is also much supporting evidence from other studies, including Farkas, Nielsen and Levine.

Farkas, D.K Guidelines for designing web navigation - Technical Communication #47

Levine - Sun Microsystems guide to web style

Nielsen - Ten good deeds in Web design

U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services - Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines

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can you share some links please? – zzzzBov Mar 2 '12 at 17:22
Added links in first comment – Brad Hutchison Mar 2 '12 at 21:13

It depends how big your site is - the bigger the site (and the more 'stuff' which is on the site) the more important the search box is.

ie - imagine using Amazon - without it having a search box...

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It doesn't seem like an extremely important thing when you just have it by default, however it might turn out to be extremely important if you remove it.

You'll know if this is something crucial for your site/app very quickly if you remove it.

Another important thing to consider is not to go crazy about custom search forcing users to for example choose what exactly to search for (e.g. articles, videos, etc.) as this is not particularly useful, rather confusing. "Don't make me think" by Krug makes a good case about it.

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The search box can prove to be very important on your site, not only for your users to find content they are looking for, but also for you to see what your users are looking for...which may indicate a content problem on your site. If users are consistently looking for similar keywords, this may be a good opportunity for you to take at look at how your site is organized and even how your copy is written.

If your site search from is powered by Google Custom Search you can track analytics on keywords users have searched for within your site. Yes, some users will take the lazy way out and automatically default to using the search box to find content, but it's good user experience to give them that option rather than expect them to navigate the labyrinth of large sites.

But if you see that your users are relying on your search form, you may need to revisit your site structure from a user experience point of view.

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I suspect I'll be repeating some of the stuff but here are my views.

The questions you will need to ask yourself are :

1) How big is the site : If the site is really big and you have a lot of content which has to be searched then you surely need a search box ,however you might also need a search box in cases where your site might be small (say 4-5 pages) but might contain content like specific reports or might be a recipe site about Indian food. So if a visitor comes to your site and he is looking for a specific dish but he is not sure what category it falls under ,he is more likely to use the search

2) How is your information architecture/site navigation defined : If your site architecture is such that users need to have a lot of clicks to get down to their content ,then you should consider a search. You should also consider a search if people are unlikely to dig up content unless they specifically know where it is or it buried fairly deep or if there are a lot of frustrated clicks

3) How much time are users spending on your site pages : Now I admit ,I cant get this information without doing some site analytics but if the average user spends a short amount of time on your site,you will need to consider if they can actually assimilate the content on the site and find out where to go to get to the content they are looking for.Of course ,if you have a very engaging site ,you might not have this concern but with low attention spans prevalent nowadays, how would you be sure that users are not going to give up and navigate away from your page

4) To quote what J. Jeffryes said, users are accustomed to navigating around sites using a search box because thats the mental model they have established with regards to information retrieval. Breaking that mental model and asking them to conform to your navigation hierarchy might frustrate them.

5) Though you did state that your trust level of the search engines of blogs and informational sites was relatively low, you are (hopefully) not the only user of the site you are designing and there might be other people who would have different views about the efficiency of the custom search engine is. Also a lot of companies nowadays use google search built into their sites and the search experience might turn out to be really good

6) Lastly echoing what Mike Hill said in one of the answers, if you have incorporate predictive search,you would help users get an idea about the content available also reduce the amount of directionless searching.

Lastly from an anecdotal point of view, I work with a small design team in my company and the client has a requirement that any sites designed for them should use content only from their media site. Now the search for the media site is really bad and incredibly unusable but everyone in the team would rather prefer to use the search to find the content despite the irrelevant stuff that keeps coming up despite it sometimes seeming easier to just drill down and find the content via the navigation

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Our analytics show that a bout 2.26% of users use the site search. Of course we push for google search and SEO and most people landing on the site is doing so direct to their search result. I personally hardly use search boxes and with responsive design it creates extra work and rethinking of header.

It is really depending of the content and the size of the site. Also if you have many documents, attachments, reports in your web site considering that they have been tagged properly site search is a must. Or if you have many products in your e-commerce portal... I don't think I can try to figure out clicking to find cookies(real,yummy ones) inside Amazon. (why would I do that?)

And even in our case, yes we should not omit it. One of the side site I designed I did not use it because it is clear to go through the main and home page navigation. Idea was to segment users from the start. Users can not search if they are not sure of what the site is about.

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What sort of site is it that you have? (eCommerce / brochureware / blog / News...) – JonW Nov 15 '13 at 11:27
the site is IT training/courses list. Lead generation – tekin Feb 5 '14 at 0:01

My own research ( as yet unpublished ) indicates that the search is the MOST important part of the site, even more than the navigation hierarchy, which most sites give a whole lot more time to. When users have come to a site home page, the most common route to progressing is the search.

Of course the alternative is that they come via another search engine to a specific page. So it might depend on where users drop onto the site from as to how important it is. I would surmise that for repeat customers - who are the lifeblood of an ongoing business - they would often start with the home page and progress, rather than new customers who may come via search engines looking for specific products.

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