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From the view of the user (not from a technical view)- What are the main differences between searching and filtering data, in order to get specific results?

i.e.- in both cases the user is looking for specific data so why should he care which method is used to find it?...

would you say these two methods are mostly the same (in the eyes of the user)?

If not- when would you use each?

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14 Answers 14

Very short answer (time pressed!):

Filtering takes an existing full list, and removes items based on criteria that match/don't match.

Search takes a blank slate and adds to it based on criteria that match/don't match.

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This sums it up perfectly for me! – Zoltán Gócza Jan 13 '10 at 9:58

Another take: in most circumstances, particularly when the task is not a known-item query, searchers don't know the precise keywords they need to type in order to acquire their target. So although the mechanism or function they are using is a "search", actually they want to explore and browse the information space. Jared Spool and UIE have explored this topic

Filtering - if we are talking about iterative, faceted search - allows users to enter a vague term and then iteratively refine it. This is the "Paradox of the active user" in action.

These "active users" don't have time to learn about the information space so they go ahead and search anyway. When the results are received for that search, they then start learning about the information space and refine/restart their query.

The design principle of timely feedback works all the way through this experience, so "Spotlight-style" results all go towards helping make the query reflective of the information space and of the person's original intention.

For a good example of both these techniques at work, try to find yourself a new TV at John Lewis or any number of e-commerce sites.

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I like Alastair's answer, but to add a bit to it.

Filter: Only filters based on a single criteria, such as the name and leaves the ordering intact.

Search: Applies all metadata and complex algorithms to the search such as boosting. Search is more complex, because you have to rank the best results first. (example: Google) Filtering doesn't care about that.

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That is an excellent addition. Thanks. – Alastair J Jan 11 '10 at 16:57
@Glen, the bit about ranking the best first is kind of wrong :). OK, Google web search does that, but there are other ways, it has nothing to do with the concept of search itself. Desktop searches usually present "first found first". Systems that present results in a grid often use current sorting to display results. Some geographical apps even present "closest first". – Vitaly Mijiritsky Apr 16 '11 at 4:30
@VitalyMijiritsky What it means to be the 'best' result is never specified in this answer. In your examples, the definition of best could respectively be the first found result and the geographically closest result. – A Boschman May 2 at 15:53

Data filtering has been around in spreadsheet and database software for decades; filtering is generally where you start with a full dataset and then filter it down to relevant results. The filter criteria should correlate with the data model. As far as the form goes, yes a keyword-only filter is essentially the same as a search, and an advanced search could be similar to a filter form ... but I guess it just comes down to where you're starting from - are you starting with results and then subtracting, or starting with no results and then displaying only relevant ones?

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Interesting question. IMO - filter subsets data usually on the screen whereas search is used to find data from a larger universe. I guess even without thinking of the size of the universe. One retrieves a subset based on criteria, whereas the other returns results based on matches.

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I think we can apply the law of Pareto (20/80) on fields filters and Search:

  • Filter: answers to 80% of users needs to find common information on "basics" fields.
  • Search: answers to 20% of users needs to find specific information on specific fields by using highly sophisticated algorithms.


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I don't think you really understand the Pareto principle. It certainly doesn't apply how you are using it here. – Charles Boyung Apr 17 '11 at 16:29
Filters (20% of fields) ==> 80% of needs, Search (the rest = 80%) --> 20% of needs... seems to be pareto law. perhaps my first answer was not clear. – Michaël Apr 18 '11 at 0:54

I guess filtering provides a specific impression whereas searching provides a generic impression. What I mean by impression is the human impression a user gets while performing the said action. For example: lets say to pick an apple from a basket full of fruits and vegetables;

  • filter: filter by 'fruits' and pick an apple
  • search: search for an apple (when you don't know whether an apple is a fruit!)
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You search when you know what you want to find. Search is active

You filter when you don't know what you don't know about what you are searching for. Filtering is passive

I explore it a little bit in my essay Slaves of the feed - This is not the real time we've been looking for

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The link is broken. – Jon Trauntvein Jan 30 '15 at 15:46

There are some really good answers here, but I wanted to contribute something from a slightly different perspective... time.

If you're purely using filters to limit results, then the most common expectation is that the list being filtered is 'live' and values may change at a regular interval, just as they would if the list weren't being filtered.

On the other hand, search tends to capture a 'point in time'. If I search for 'foo' and an object has a matching value, then the object is part of the search result. If after a minute (or whatever interval), that object's value for 'foo' changes to 'bar', my result set is unchanged. (at least until the next time I run the search)

Search results shouldn't appear and disappear based on changes in time. Filtered data on the other hand may change over time, if the base set of data changes over time.

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To be crisp

Search is used to locate and display set of results. Shows data based on criteria that matched.

Filters are used to hide results from the current displayed results. Removes data based on criteria that matched.

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From a technical point of view the two are basically the same (i.e. excluding elements from a list, based on some criterias)

From a user point of view, it's very different:

Search is done as a first step to get some data

Filtering is applied on top of the search, after the search, never before

moreover, filtering is usually performed using boolean flags or ranges (e.g. max price $100) while search input is usually free text manually entered by the user

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One case is if you have a list of items. You know the name of the item, then you SEARCH with this name. Normally in a text field. Now you have 20 items with that name, so, you´ll FILTER this items that was created this month. Summary: SEARCH a string/value FILTER by some characteristic.

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Here's a visual example. I built this as an advanced search and filtering wherein user just types any random keywords to search all of the data but can also add specific filters to narrow down the search. Hope that helps!

enter image description here

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Searching adds results and filtering removes results.

A good example of this is ebay. You enter your search terms and receive lots of results. After that you filter by categories, price, location, ... to remove unwanted results.

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