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I have a couple of questions which relates to how to best show parent/child records on search results.

An example first: If you have digitised 300 individual pages of an illuminated manuscript, then it could be feasible that the page of interest could be the 40th page. This says to me that each individual page should be represented and searchable, so if you do a search for "Psalm 40" for example (from the book of psalms), then you should find that object - rather than 0 results, or a top level 'book of psalms' result alone.

My question is what would you do if you were searching for the top level parent item? in this example, "The book of psalms", would it be wise just to show the parent record, or would it be wise to show the parent and all children? Also, are there any patterns that you know, that show a parent / child on a results page?

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3 Answers 3

This is a common issue that you have to address as soon as you want to point your one-input-field search engine to any data structure more complex than linear.

The big online search engines can serve as example, but where they draw the line between items and sub items is the real trick:

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In the example you can see that a few of the "sub pages" are represented as result item children. But there are obviously more tools from Google, and more sections of The Time of India, than the few ones that they choose to show here. It is an art of fine tuning (by Google's algorithms and manual page admin settings), deciding which to show, and which to not.

So to answer your question, like always, knowing what you want to show comes down to knowing what your user wants to find by typing a certain search string.

Will they search for a top item to find a top item? Then make sure to show the top item when searching for it. Will they search for a top item to find a sub item? Then show them the subitems, and let it be easy to refine the search if they want to. Or just show them the top one, and let them be able to drill down, or perhaps refine the search once "inside" the chosen top item. Do you want to provide for both scenarios and provide both types of results at once? Then make sure that the hierarchy is visually clear, like the Google example above.

To round off, the problem might be easier than you think. Perhaps refining the search will come easy for your users? Try to define what the problem for your users actually is, when using your solution. Choosing what to show and what to not show does not have to be as algorithm tense as Google's ranking solutions. As an example, we made a hierarchical search result list for Companies and their Employees. In our case, the line of sub- or super-item was given, perhaps it is in your case too, and then you only have to make a single design per hierarchy level and stick to it. And when searching for Companies or People, it is very easy to refine your search by just typing the full name or perhaps a city, to make the search result short. Perhaps your users will be able to do the same.

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As you don't know what does user want to find (book or page) and concerning the whole primary object in your system is a book which in turn contains pages, I think it is more informative to display parent object (book) and reasonable number of children (pages). Besides, some users could search for a book not by its title but by entering some known phrases from it.

Anyway, displaying both the children and parent provides more wide context for users, that could be helpful in some cases.

You could use two-steps search results for books containing many children which match search query, as sketched.

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I would display all results and offer filtering options to the user so they can choose whether to filter results just to child elements. In terms of an example of showing parent/child results - have you looked at eCommerce sites and categories or departments in the filter options. For example look at Amazon. Do a search for toaster. On the left you see departments and sub departments. This allows users to filter just to Two-slice toasters or Four-slice toasters. Your sub departments could be "Pages", "Chapters" with your main department being "Books".

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