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One of our clients has a content-rich website with about 300 pages of content in total. We did our utmost best to provide a very clear main navigation, but also provide a search function in the header.

In the past two years we had more than 80,000 visits. The search function has been used in 1.39% of these visits. Looking at the items that are search for they are generic in nature: things that are easily found by using the main navigation.

My feeling is that the people who used the search functionality just like to navigate that way, instead of being unable to find the content through the main navigation.

Now considering these two things: the low percentage of searches per visit and the queries being used I lean to the idea removing the search functionality altogether to un-clutter the navigation bar (the search function takes up 25% of the navigation width).

My question: is this reasoning sane? Or am I overlooking something?

UPDATE: Some excellent questions were asked, of which I combined my answers in this update.

  • Search usage is split almost perfectly 50-50 between new and returning visitors.
  • In general the search is working pretty well. But I have two make two important side notes:

    • A) Some of the queries have zero results because we simply don't have that kind of content. A good example are queries for vacancies, which we don't post on the website. We could add some content around this (a page stating we don't have/post vacancies), but it's no false negative.
    • B) Some of the queries are really generic in nature (just a single word) and although content is returned it's really not clear what the search is looking for based on the query. It's too ambiguous.
  • 78% of the 80,000 visits have a visit depth of 1 or 2 pages. 22% have a visit depth of more than 2 pages. This is also explainable considering that almost 65% of all visits comes from external search engines (mostly Google), and users mostly arrive on the page they are looking for (looking at their query and the landing page).

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Any idea about who is using the search bar, returning visitors or new ones? –  Igor-G Dec 6 '12 at 10:37
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And another question, does your search works properly? I mean, looking at the statistics how many of the users who actually used the search are satisfied with the results (clicks and stay at the pages were found, etc)? –  alexeypegov Dec 6 '12 at 11:00
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You may, unfortunately, be at the point of "take it out and see what happens." With such good metrics, and a proven navigation design, I'm assuming that you have good source control practices, so removing (or hiding) it should be readily "undoable." –  Wonko the Sane Dec 6 '12 at 14:08
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Here’s a thought: what happens if you remove the navigation instead of the search? Though not an entirely serious suggestion, this would be an interesting UX experiment (provided the search is good). In fact, web search engines essentially operate that way (particularly compared to the previous ubiquitous web directories which have all but vanished). GitHub now also provides an (optional) search-only interface; smartphone interfaces lean the same way; and I believe that in the long run this kind of interface is the way forward. –  Konrad Rudolph Dec 6 '12 at 21:30
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How many of those 80,000 view more than 1-2 pages of content? Is it possible an external linking strategy is more appealing than the content itself? Is it possible the search engine stinks? You mention clutter. Is the search field itself hard to find? –  Erik Reppen Dec 7 '12 at 3:31
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8 Answers 8

Taking all the nuances into an account I still think that you should not remove the search functionality, but make search field smaller instead (or change it somehow so it still be functional but within a lesser space), so visitors who would like to use it will still be able to do it.

An example:

enter image description here

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Thank you, I'll consider that. We need to overlap the navigation items to do that however. But that shouldn't be a big problem. –  Vincent van Scherpenseel Dec 6 '12 at 11:49
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Good suggestion, but oh I hate that feature in Safari Mobile (in iOS 5). Tap "New page" and just when you're about to click the url address field, the Google search field expands and you tap in that field instead. The search field here on UX.SE is expandable too, and it is not good. Enter the field and everything looks ok, but once you start writing in that field, your text slides to the left and you have to re-locate the text you've written before you can continue the writing. On top of that, all navigation items disappears from the header section. (And there is no search button) –  Jørn E. Angeltveit Dec 6 '12 at 11:55
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@JørnE.Angeltveit it's only a suggestion, I believe there are many ways of doing that, like leaving the Search icon only and showing a textfield somewhere else. I think it's actually depends on the design and other factors, so main idea is to keep the search but modify it the way it will occupy less space. –  alexeypegov Dec 6 '12 at 11:58
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@JørnE.Angeltveit but removing search field is not the same as removing search functionality completely as it was asked. Still, this suggestion is just a one variant of many, and personally I prefer to have textfield always visible. –  alexeypegov Dec 6 '12 at 12:03
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@DvirAdler, Yes the suggestion about stretching/shrinking is good, but it must be implemented properly. Even the search-king, Google takes this feature all the way. If you start entering text at google.com, you get redirected to a whole other page. Which makes it funny when they have not removed old functionality. Exercise of today: Goto google.com and use the "I feel lucky" button ;-) –  Jørn E. Angeltveit Dec 6 '12 at 12:32
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Now considering these two things: the low percentage of searches per visit and the queries being used I lean to the idea removing the search functionality altogether to un-clutter the navigation bar (the search function takes up 25% of the navigation width).

My question: is this reasoning sane? Or am I overlooking something?

The Search feature doesn't need to be included on every website but if a few users need quick access to a document/page they have the option to search. The search feature comes in handy as websites grow and documents/pages don't fit into the navigation structure.

The size of the search field can also be reduced if it's visually distracting. PatternTap offers many pattern examples you can use as reference to re-styling the search field.

Ecomangination has a good example using limited space for their search field. Using a magnifying glass to represent search when a user clicks the icon it expands to show users the search input field.

Ecomangination search field

Ecomangination Search Example

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Thank you very much. Although similar to @Alexey Pegov's solution I agree that limiting the size it takes up is definitely an option. And you make an excellent point: "The search feature comes in handy as websites grow and documents/pages don't fit into the navigation structure.". So, to future-proof the website it could still be useful. –  Vincent van Scherpenseel Dec 6 '12 at 16:02
    
@wanscherpenseel: In reference to Alexey's Pegov's answer I wanted to show there are other methods in condensing your search field. As for which method you choose I highly recommend looking at patterns to find a look that best fits your needs. O'Reilly Media also offers a good book on "Search Patterns" if you'd like to explore a little further. –  Courtney Jordan Dec 9 '12 at 13:54
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Contrary to most answers I think the bar should be removed, looking to your numbers, it appears the bar is working properly but isn't helping the user get to their goal.

The users using the search field fall in two categories:

  1. Users who could not find what they want in the navigation, and thus may search to broadly, and ends up with 0 results.
  2. Advanced users who prefer to type, and ends up in the same pages of the navigation

The type of users being harmed (group 1: +-0.695%) probably wouldn't find the info anyway...

You could try a new approach, maybe try to replace the search field with a link to "All Categories" listing a bunch of tags (a paging being tagged by several keywords). Just one idea, but you can explore other ways for easing the users site navigation.

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Really good answer! As I also mention above: the typical user doesn't need a lot of pageviews to find the content. The 300 pages are grouped in different segments and users can usually find what they need with just 2 pages (also important: a lot of our traffic comes from search engines and thus often ends up on the right page already). So combining that fact with your answer it should be safe to remove the search functionality. –  Vincent van Scherpenseel Dec 7 '12 at 9:34
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How splendid it is to make decisions with such hard figures!

Note that the 1.39% percent looks scant, but it means you are running the risk of hurting more than a 1,000 users.

Is reducing the clutter of the navigation bar worth it? No one can tell without seeing your navigation bar...

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Thank you for your input. The point is that I'm not sure if it will really hurt users, or not. Considering that the navigation is good and search queries don't really show that people are looking for hard-to-find content. –  Vincent van Scherpenseel Dec 6 '12 at 13:09
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@vvanscherpenseel The majority of users currently using the search would likely disagree that navigation is good. There are a few sites that I go to that if they removed their search bar, I would find the site almost intolerable. There is so much information, and I usually want something specific, that it is very hard to find it through the provided navigation menus. Search is sometimes vital. Removing it entirely would be a great impedance to any user the uses it. –  Daniel Cook Dec 6 '12 at 15:47
    
@DanielCook Thank you for your reply. You are right that generally it would be a bad idea. But judging based on our metrics and actual usage (queries) it might be different. –  Vincent van Scherpenseel Dec 6 '12 at 16:01
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The low search rates strongly implies that you have a great navigating system. Still, there are some with a taste for search, and you can only guess their reason. They could have little trust in navigation, they might be overwhelmed by all the options available, or it could be the opposite- they know exactly what they want, but don't remember the path that leads to it. In any case, the usable navigating system is great for almost every one, but leaving the option for those who prefer search makes your site even more usable! –  Dvir Adler Dec 9 '12 at 5:51
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At the risk of offending the search gods of UX, perhaps if the usage is so low it can be removed from the focus of the navigation (if the other suggestions of reducing footprint aren't acceptable) and could be placed in the footer where somebody might expect a site navigation. It may be non-standard but would prevent the frustration of not having search available.

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Similar to other proposals (make the search less obvious), but an interesting idea for sure. –  Vincent van Scherpenseel Dec 7 '12 at 9:30
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Having 300 pages or so on your site seems like you must have a hierarchical navigation. Meaning 3 main area, with some sections, under which maybe are topics and then the final pages.

One scenario, that would speak for keeping the search would be the length or navigation paths. If the search is used by users to shorten the amount of pages to get to their destination, then it could make sense to keep the search. Whereas a scenario where most people searching end up on rather top-level pages the navigation path does not get shorted.

Hypothetically, let's assume an user wants to get to a page via the navigation like so:

index > main area a > section 1 > topic 5 > page C

That makes four steps, but via the search this could be:

index > search results > page C

and thus shortening the navigation path by two.

However, if users usually search for "section x" or even "main area x" type of elements high up in the hierachy, the search does not shorten their path to content, and thus taking it away does not complicate their usage.

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I would suggest you keep the search function. It gives people the trust that they can rely on a second method for navigation, if their first search through regular navigation does not work.

The fact that people do not use the search so often, probably proves that your main navigation is very clear to most people. But still, people will want to search if they can not immediately find what they are looking for.

I have a webshop and I had my searchbox removed, because on this particular webshop, I had only a small amount of products an I felt that a searchbox was no longer required.

I experienced about 5% less sales because of this...so I have re-instated the search box.

Good luck with your site!

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Really good point about the psychological assurance the existance of a search box provides. Also +1 for mentioning a real drop in sales figures. –  kontur Dec 7 '12 at 11:50
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Please do not practice utilitarianism in web design if you can avoid it. You can please everyone most of the time.

I upvoted Alexey's answer but can't comment on it to show a few popular sites that use this:

http://developer.android.com/sdk/index.html

http://techcrunch.com/

http://css-tricks.com/

I absolutely adore that feature. It's very usable, saves space, and let's face it: it's dead sexy.

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I disagree. You can't make everyone happy at the same time. You need to make sacrifices for the common good (or for the segment that's most interesting to you). Also in the TC example I really had to look hard before I could find the search bar. Never saw it before although I visit TC almost daily! –  Vincent van Scherpenseel Dec 7 '12 at 9:31
    
Good examples, maybe you should have put them in @Alexey's answer's comments rather than post your own answer to provide the example links. –  kontur Dec 7 '12 at 10:15
    
kontur, please refer to line 2 of my answer. I don't have enough rep to comment on an answer. If you downvoted my answer for this, shame on you. –  William Dec 7 '12 at 13:52
    
wanscherpenseel - I'd argue that you not seeing it completely justifies its design. It's not in the way of your normal browsing experience, but it's a feature I personally know about and use when I'm looking for an article I read last month. You can make everyone happy, it's just not always easy to find how. –  William Dec 7 '12 at 13:54
    
wanshcerpenseel - Hopefully you didn't find my answer too prescriptive. Honestly, I was just trying to make this a comment to an answer to show you examples of what Alexey contributed as an answer you basically agreed with. –  William Dec 7 '12 at 14:02
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