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In 1997, Jakob Nielsen wrote that more than half of the users use search rather than navigation. Here is an answer from 2012 that says that percent of users using search is between 5% and 30%.

My guess is that when there is more users with less technological knowledge, that would decrease the percent of users doing search rather than navigation.

Is there any recent research about what kind of users prefer search, when users prefer search, in what kind of websites users prefer search etc.?

  • It's complicated. – user67695 Jan 10 '18 at 21:13
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    I had a fascinating out of scope conclusion from a small usability study for an academic library - age played an important role in predicting if someone was more likely to use search. Older users were more likely to stick with the navigational menus while younger users used search almost immediately. Younger users would use search as soon as they could not immediately identify the thing they were seeking in the navigation. I would love to see a comprehensive study that covers demographic predictors for search adoption as it relates to layout and navigation complexity. – j.steelman Feb 8 '18 at 16:23
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A lot of time and attention has been put into this topic. I've only included the first five articles/studies I came across in my searching. These should provide an adequate starting point for more searching on your part.

The most general statement that can be derived from just these articles and studies is:

While some small percentage of users will always use search first, most users prefer to use navigation over search, though (as stated by Katz & Byrne, 2003) this will very much depend on "the layout of the home page and the site’s information structure"

If you want to work out the right answer for your website and your users, you'll have to carry out some more research, and put together a hypothesis that can be proven or disproven by testing of your own.

From "Search Vs Browse on Websites" - MeasuringU.com

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.

Across these independent data points collected over the last seven years, it seems safe to conclude that most users tend to start browsing over searching.

From "Search vs. navigate: How people behave on websites – do they search or do they navigate?" - Cludo.com

59% of web visitors frequently use the internal search engine to navigate on a website and 15% would rather use the search function than the hierarchical menu. What’s more, behavioral studies from the Nielsen Group and other research findings show that more than 50% of people visiting a start page on a website go straight to the internal search box in order to navigate.

From "5 Ways to Make Your E-Commerce Website Search Feature Convert" - Kissmetrics.com

responses generally showed over half prefer to use on-page navigation, while 47% of respondents prefer to filter down to specific product details (size, color, etc.) on the product page itself.

From "Effects of scent and breadth on use of site-specific search on e-commerce websites" - Katz & Byrne, 2003

“Given broad, high-scent menus, participants searched less than 10% of the time, but they searched almost 40% of the time when faced with narrow, low-scent menus; this is a practically-significant effect,” the paper states.

The paper goes on to identify that the rate search is used on a website is influenced by many things, but it’s especially affected by the layout of the home page and the site’s information structure.

From "Are there users who always search?" - Jared M. Spool, 2001

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.

More relevant links:

  • I had to read about the 'scent' idea. I hope that this term does not become widespread... Apparently "high scent menus" contain specific, distinctive and semantically rich items - 'sweaters' rather than cool-weather clothing, for example. Similarly, I have never liked the term "look and feel" of a web site, since there is nothing to feel. Someone I used to work for called this "taste / feel" for some reason, which was even more of a WTF. – user67695 Jan 10 '18 at 21:17
  • The 'feel' in look and feel obviously isn't meant to be literal. It supposed to be analogous to how it feels to use something physical, like a tool. Tools and interfaces can both feel slow, fast, complicated, unbalanced, etc. If there was a better term for describing how the surface layer of a website/web app manifests in a human mind, we'd probably know about it. – dennislees Jan 11 '18 at 17:30
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    Well, it seems to me that 'scent' is pretty far off the trail. I am glad that it appears to have not become widely-used. Maybe we need new ways of describing new things? Back to the grindstone... Drawing board... Salt mines... Whatever. – user67695 Jan 12 '18 at 13:35
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Interesting question. In 1997 I was not a user of the internet, but I hope I have the answer for you.

I don't know how web pages looked in 1997, but when I used the internet in 2006 web pages had too much content and menus. It was very messy feeling, and I had to remember the path to get to a link or result. I even recall making notes on the path to find some things, so at that time search was the best solution for me.

But as user experience and technology rapidly improved, the content of web pages became focused, and navigation became the higher priority.

The things listed below would be responsible for the downfall of the search bar:

  • Most people aren't very good at searching some people are very bad at formulating a good search query.
  • People often use different words than the website uses. They type in 'night school' for example, when the site talks about 'lifelong
    learning'. There's nothing wrong with that, but it usually doesn't
    deliver great results.
  • Spelling errors are very common People who browse see more and buy more
  • People who use the search feature look at less other pages after they've found what they're looking for than people who browse.
    On e-commerce sites the shopping carts of browsers are fuller than those of searchers. On the other hand, searchers often have a higher conversion rate than browsers. That's pretty logical, given that people who use the search feature know what they want and are often looking for something specific. And so not an argument in favor of just pushing any and every visitor towards the search feature.
  • Hi Sushant, could you cite your quotes? – Alan Jan 10 '18 at 14:30
  • It appears to be from agconsult.com/en/usability-blog/navigation-versus-search – Dan D. Jan 10 '18 at 18:25
  • On a site like Amazon with literally millions of items available, and with me often not knowing how they fall in their menu hierarchy, I don't ever even try to use menus. Search finds things, regardless of the taxonomy someone thinks they belong in. – user67695 Jan 10 '18 at 21:20
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This depends on many variables so there can never be a definitive answer.

With that being said, the search function will slowly lose its purpose. This is due to the increase use of personal data by services, which tailor information for specific users. Although there is a privacy uproar currently, for example the case of Facebook, users will not give up comfort over privacy issues. Having the system know you individually will provide you with the information that you require specifically, therefore the use of a search engine will be obsolete eventually.

Consider the case of Facebook’s search function. I remember when people searched for their friends, now, Facebook has access to your phone numbers, and provides friend suggestions based on those numbers and location, and network of friends and occupation and interests and ....

I’m assuming less people use Facebook’s search function to find friends today, compared to the past years. This trend will continue until search engines become obsolete. When will that be? Your guess is as good as mine.

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