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Having an internal search on a web site takes a lot of effort if you should do it “the right way”. You have to handle case sensitivity, visible results query, misspellings, result matches and highlights, tiles and description, the number of results and related taxonomy. The most intense task in the list above is misspellings and related taxonomy.

It will result in a few hundred hours of development and design just to make the internal search “good enough”. How about spending these hours on improving navigation elements instead. There are plenty of work that can be done to make navigation better and leave out the search from my site. Related topics, user driven tags, distinct hierarchical navigation, and top navigation, all driven by usability test results.

Where do I put my development hours to get the best effect? Navigation or Search?

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Where do you expect bigger returns? Are customers having problems finding things? Would improved navigation solve those problems? –  Emil Oct 4 '12 at 18:18
    
Less development hours and easier for users to find what they need. A classic win/win - but can it be done leaving search out of the equation? –  Benny Skogberg Oct 4 '12 at 18:20
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Why ever not employ "search this site" from Google? Yes, you may have to pay a few bucks depending on how often it is used. And yes, the default embeddable Google search box makes it obvious you are leveraging Google. But it will safe you a lot of hours and headaches... –  Marjan Venema Oct 5 '12 at 7:57
    
@MarjanVenema That's one option I'd like you to elaborate on and put as an answer - if you have the time. I think it's a great suggestion! –  Benny Skogberg Oct 5 '12 at 8:04
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@BennySkogberg: will do, may take a bit, need to get the links together. –  Marjan Venema Oct 5 '12 at 12:55
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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Good question ! I would say go for the focus of creating a well defined navigation as there seems to be a lot of user data about users greatly preferring to use a clear cut navigation as opposed to a search feature to find what they want.

Taking this article Navigation is more important than search

Recently, we did some extensive task testing with a technical audience. 70 percent started the task by clicking on a link, 30 percent used search.

Similarly Jared spool's article Are There Users Who Always Search?

In our study, we observed 30 users performing 121 different shopping tasks. Each user visited between 3 and 6 web sites, shopping for items they told us they were interested in purchasing; no two users were interested in exactly the same products.

If the search-dominance theory is true, we should've seen a subset of our users always relying on the search engine to find product information, while others relied on the links.

When we looked at the data from our study, we found that there wasn't a single user out of 30 who always used the search engine first when looking for product information. None of the users in our study were search dominant. However, we did uncover some link-dominant users. About 20% of our participants chose links exclusively.

Then, when we looked at the individual sites, we saw that for 21% of the sites, every single user who visited only used search. It seems that these sites were search dominant, not the users. Thirty-two percent of the sites were link dominant (users only used the links on the site) and 47% were not dominant to search or links.

We find it fascinating that on 53% of the sites we tested, each visitor stuck with a single location strategy — the same strategy employed by all the other visitors to that site. This implies that there is something inherent in the site's design that causes users to choose the search engine or the links, not a hard-and-fast preference of the user.

As we talk with the users, we often hear them tell us that they do have a preference for search — that they are search dominant. All the time, we hear, "I always go to search immediately." But none of our users actually did always go to search immediately — yet another piece of evidence to suggest that what users say they do and what they actually do are very different.

Taking inputs from this article Navigation Vs Search on The Web Usability Blog

When we do visitor behaviour analysis we often see that the search feature is rarely used by more than 5% of a site’s total number of visitors. On our blogs the number of searchers is even lower: around 1,5%. On the website of a Flemish province we’re working for it’s just below 5%.

Things we know about search During user tests we see the following happen time and time again:

  • Most people only use the search feature after they’ve tried the navigation or the content links. Search is seen as the last resort.

  • If people are looking for something very specific, like a product they know the name of, they’re be more inclined to search.

  • Programmers and engineers use the search feature more often than ‘normal people’.

Lastly this article Search Vs. Browse On Websites has some interesting data found by using heatmaps to determine the user focus

We've studied many websites and watched as some users use a search first strategy while others go right for the top navigation. We examined the data from nine recent usability studies with 25 tasks involving over 1500 users. The websites were a mix of large ecommerce retail websites, mobile phone carriers, rental car companies and automotive websites

On average about 14% of users started with search. There was a fair amount of variability in the data with a low search percentage by task of 2% and high of 75%.

We noticed the more densely packed retail websites had higher search (>50%) but more data is needed to confirm that relationship. Given the sample of websites and tasks we can be 90% confident between 11% and 21% of users will start with search.

Another study found about a 5% search rate. In 2005, Katz and Byrne, in a more rigorous examination, found that participants searched less than 10% of the time, but searched almost 40% of the time when faced with "narrow, low-scent menus." As expected they found nuances to why users search based on the labeling, information architecture and the prominence of the search boxes

I would really draw your attention to the above line that if your search box is prominent and very noticeable, you might have a larger number of users who opt in for search.

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The image above has a very prominent large text box which draws attention and is in a prime location and not surprisingly about 50% of participants in this evaluation used the prominent pick-up location text-box as a search box

Lastly coming to the question, do I need a search box at all ? I am not sure what your site is about but I would recommend keeping it based upon the experience I had while conducting some user tests for a Ecommerce site I recently built.

Though users were able to find what they were looking for really quickly using the defined navigation, not keeping a search bar was a bone of contention for some users as they had very predefined search requests in mind. When we did keep a search feature in the site, we found that the users were happy to have an additional navigation feature though the search results were not really that exceptional (we just enabled the basic search featured offered by the CMS)

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+1 for an extensive and very insightful answer. The fact that "Programmers and engineers use the search feature more often than ‘normal people’." could explain why search almost always is present on web sites. Thanx! –  Benny Skogberg Oct 5 '12 at 8:14
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Rather than try and implement a search feature yourself for your site, you really should look at some commercial solutions. There is simply no way for you to implement anything as good in a cost effective manner, while your visitors will expect all the bells and whistles they have grown accustomed to using Google, Bing, or whatever their favorite search engine may be.

If you are already using for example Google Analytics, then Google Site Search is a very good option as it integrates with Analytics: http://www.google.com/enterprise/search/products_gss.html

Another option would be a solution that you can deploy on your own server. The one I know of by word of colleagues is SOLR: http://lucene.apache.org/solr/ Apache is very much associated with the LAMP stack, but SOLR is usable on Windows as well (we certainly don't use Linux).

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