I often have arguments about navigation at work with programmers who think search is a required part of any navigation. I think this is because programmers are advanced computer users who use search a lot and therefore have a preference for it. But I haven't seen any evidence that navigation is not effective without search. Many sites are easy to navigate and use without it, although it does of course add something when it exists. However, just putting search in your navigation isn't usually enough - search is a totally different paradigm and needs equal attention to be done right. You can't just "throw it in there" - it's not just a case of "setting up Lucene", as I sometimes hear.

So, is there any evidence that search is necessary for navigation to work?

No opinions please - looking for hard evidence, literature, references, etc.

4 Answers 4


A lot of hard evidence, literature, and references can be found by starting from this article on searchtools.com. Some excerpts follow. The gist of it (according to my understanding/opinion) is this: a user interface should enable the user to do exactly what they want to do in the most efficient way possible. If the user is going to want to search for something, give them a search tool. That being said, I agree with you 100% that a search is not something you can simply tack on to an existing UI. A lot of thought should go into how it is designed, with the ultimate goal of helping the user find what they are looking for. Google's PageRank is an excellent example. Users don't care about how many keywords some amateur web designer can stuff into a page, so traditional search methods are mostly useless. By tailoring the search algorithm to give higher rankings to popular and well-referenced sites, Google comes very close to matching exactly what the user wants.

Most of the references below are pro-search, but I think the following cartoon really gets to the heart of the matter. A search feature by itself is not enough.

1. http://www.internettg.org/newsletter/dec00/article_information_foragers.html

information seeking online: a negotiation between user and system

It is important to note that foraging for information does not equate to aimless "surfing." Foraging refers to the variety of strategies seekers exhibit in their quest for information and how humans adapt to their environments on a situational basis. Consequently, in an information-rich world the real design challenges are not only how to facilitate finding and collecting information, but how to optimize the seeker’s time.

2. http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2001/06/44321

According to Chi's research, people almost always start out with a search engine, then engage in what he calls "hub-and-spoke" surfing: They begin at the center, and they follow a trail based on its information scent.

3. http://www.wqusability.com/articles/search-is-normal-upa2008.pdf

One of the surprising patterns is that much of the searching shows clear evidence of 'jump search' - using the search box as a convenient shortcut to known content; for example, about 10% of searches are looking for a course by its code number.

4. http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20050509.html

Users now have precise expectations for the behavior of search. Designs that invoke this mental model but work differently are confusing.

Search is such a prominent part of the Web user experience that users have developed a firm mental model for how it's supposed to work. Users expect search to have three components:

  • A box where they can type words
  • A button labeled "search" that they click to run the search
  • A list of top results that's linear, prioritized, and appears on a new page -- the search engine results page (SERP)

In user testing, people tell us that they want search on websites and intranets to work like X, where X is their favorite major search engine. Luckily, all three of the major engines (Google, Yahoo, and MSN) work the same: exactly as stated in the list above.

See also:


  • My pleasure :)
    – e.James
    Nov 8, 2010 at 1:04
  • Yep, lots of good info there. I'd also add that on larger sites, it's often just not practical for users to find deep documents via natural navigation. So in terms of scalability, it probably is a good idea to build search into the site if you're expecting a large amount of content to accrue over time. Though relying exclusively on search to deliver pages to your users is also a bad idea. You should use the search box as a safety net. Don't make users search for pages if you can help it (especially if they don't know what keywords to search for). Nov 10, 2010 at 0:37

Steve Krug in his book "Don't make me think" about usability explains that a lot of users (and not advanced computer users) go straight to the search box and don't know another way to find what they want.

See "Fact of life #3":

My favorite example is the people (and I’ve seen dozens of them myself) who will type a site’s entire URL in the Yahoo search box every time they want to go to there—not just to find the site for the first time, but every time they want to go there, sometimes several times a day. If you ask them about it, it becomes clear that some of them think that Yahoo is the Internet, and that this is the way you use it.

  • This suggests a different pattern to me - that the search engine search function (this quote shows how old DMMT is) is significant. But it doesn't really suggest that it's a necessary function of navigation within a site.
    – Rahul
    Nov 8, 2010 at 0:36
  • 1
    I his second edition, the author states that he had to change almost nothing in his book as the principles he exposes remained. If the majority of websites have a search engine, then you need one. Some people work that way and you can not afford to lose them for that reason.
    – Mart
    Nov 8, 2010 at 8:17

According to Jakob Nielsen, studies

show that more than half of all users are search-dominant, about a fifth of the users are link-dominant, and the rest exhibit mixed behavior.

He also states that "As a rule of thumb, sites with more than about 200 pages should offer search."

Granted, it's a 1997 article (followed by a 2001 update). IMO, it can be argued either way whether these stats are now less relevant or more relevant today.


I think that search is complementary to the regular navigation, just by considering the following scenarios:

1) the user has never visited your site, he wonders what is in there, he looks for a navigation bar and starts exploring, he then finds something interesting and reads it throughly

2) a few days later the same user needs the piece of information he read on your site and decides to go back to it. The first thing he looks for is a search bar where he can put the keywords he remembers from your article. If he can't find it he will try to explore your site by using standard navigation the way he did before, but his experience will certainly be more negative because this will take more time and if your site is filled with content updated quite regularly he may not even be able to find the article unless he starts browsing the archives.

About how to do search, yes you have to do it right otherwise if the content doesn't show up the user could think you removed it,anyway there are alternatives to Lucene and Google site search itself is a pretty viable one I think.

  • -1 - No references/research, and indeed search is complementary, but the question is whether it's necessary
    – Rahul
    Nov 8, 2010 at 0:37
  • in my opinion actual scenarios could be enough in this case, and by the way when two things are complementary they are "mutually supplying each other's lack" hence both are needed. reference: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/complementary
    – Michele
    Nov 8, 2010 at 0:49
  • I really don't want to get into a dictionary definition argument here, but the way you use complementary implies you're suggesting it adds value to the navigation. I am agreeing with you, but asking for proof. Your answer only provides opinion.
    – Rahul
    Nov 8, 2010 at 7:58
  • If is an opinion that you need somebody in a store to answer if something is available, and can't just let everyone browse the shelves then pay at a cash machine with a security camera.
    – Michele
    Nov 8, 2010 at 23:07

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