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Recently we participated in a seminar conducted by Netmester A/S where Philip Andersen had an opportunity to talk about “The new users – that’s how they search nowadays”. During that presentation one of the participants asked a question: “Do we really need to have a search box on our homepage? Do people use a search box at all?” That question made me to think that there is a doubt and gap which have to be researched and explained.

When I started digging on the Internet for answers I came across statements like:
I feel like I can never find what I’m looking for with a search box. Maybe that’s just me…1
For blogs and informational websites, I often don’t trust the built-in search to return better results than I’d get from Google.1

We live in the age of search engines and modern browsers that implement build-in search bars. Search engines, like Google or Yahoo, are very popular and people use them for almost everything. They search for what, how, when, why, etc. and the reality is that it is the search engines that set the search standards.

So do you really need internal search box on your site, when people “already have” Google now? If your website has an advanced structure and significant amounts of content, then the short answer is ‘YES‘ because in order for any website to be effective, it should be easy for visitors to engage with it and find the content they are looking for – and people are different and use different methods to accomplish tasks.

Eternal battle between search box and navigation … or not?

The two primary navigation methods: navigating and searching both have an important place in the modern web.  It seems there has always been an internal fight between navigation and the search box. Web owners very often underestimate the power of the search box or, on the other hand, think that placing a search box on their page will solve all UX navigation issues and challenges.

Good navigation and good links are vital for the success of a website. Browsing is the primary navigation method on most sites (drop down menus, banners, and boxes with links), but as a website’s content is growing it can become quite difficult to solve UX challenges with structured navigation. Additionally, visitors are becoming more and more comfortable using a search interface to discover new content and to navigate large and extremely complex sites on a regular basis.

This is why a search feature is not an added bonus any longer, it has become a standard. Every bigger website with complex content and thousands of articles has to have search functionality, and it has to be as good as Google or even better, otherwise visitors will leave your site.

 

Websites can be categorized into 3 categories:

    1. Minimal navigation with a main focus on search functionality: all of the giant sites like Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, etc. have no main, traditional navigation. The search box plays a dominant role and is placed in the center. Navigation is just providing links to user profile or accounts etc.Search-vs-2Search-vs-3Search-vs-4Search-vs-5
    2. Standard navigation (top menu, drop down menu, side menu), standard search box – a combo solution: there are millions of examples on the web of this approach.Search-vs-6Search-vs-7Search-vs-8
    3. Standard navigation, no search box or search box almost invisible on homepage. This is typical for small homepages (up to 200 articles) or for pages where the visual experience is crucial (campaign pages, photographers portfolio pages)

 

Search-vs-9

 

Should the website then be designed to let users freely explore the content using search rather than guide them to where site owner wants them to go using site navigation? Can we expect to see sites with no main navigation links at all in the near future?

 

The answer to that question is: ‘NO‘. People are different and, as said before, they use different techniques. Some are better at recognizing things than recalling them from memory, some prefer to search and find content independently of the websites’ attempts to control the navigation paths. Search box and navigation instead of competing should rather go hand-in-hand and help users to reach their goals.

 

What are the known patterns in searching and navigating

During the research based on findings I have made on the internet (see the source list) I discovered that:

  • People who use search box know specifically what they are looking for, like e.g. product name. People who navigate explore more related content but it does not mean that their conversion rate is higher. Users who use the search are often in the late-stage of buying mode, information gathering phase is completed and they have made decision which product to buy.
  • Search lets users control their own actions and just find things they are looking for; navigation attempts to guide users where they should click and decides on their behalf which content is more important than other.
  • Women navigate, men search (men are “hunters” and women are “browsers” online) 2
  • People very often use only search functionality on their mobiles. Complex navigation seldom works well on mobile devices and people just don’t use it. Instead they prefer to quickly insert the search word and go directly to the result page.
  • Search is the users’ escape when they are stuck in navigation – when they can’t find a reasonable place to go next, they often turn to the site’s search function.

 

Analyzing the above, the following conclusion can be made: each website should take into account that there are different types of users and good design and UX should appeal to all of them. The image below presents this concept. Good design would be a design that combines and includes most of functionality from both designs (design 1: for users who search, where search box has prominent role, and design 2: without search box for users who browse). It doesn’t narrow and tries to target only one group of users and doesn’t take at all or take in limited way the other group of users into account.

 

Search-vs-10

What does the statistics say?

According to Comprend (see source list below) 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. Those figures proves that search box becomes essential navigation tool on every website.

 

I have conducted a study case based on Vejen municipality. The study shows that Vejen has on average 1.200 visitors per day. The search result page is in the ranking:

 

  1. on the 6th position of pages accessed directly
  2. on the 3rd position of pages most visited

The data in Cludo’s analytics shows that there are on average 500 search words with results that are searched every day.

Search-vs-11

The data actually shows that the search box is a very important part of the Vejen municipality website, and it is one of the most popular and used pages.

 

It’s very important to understand visitors and their patterns, it is important to understand how users use your site and what they are looking for. If you still hesitate if you should have an intelligent internal search on your site, you should look into your statistics. You can use e.g. Google Analytics and set up search word tracking / no search results tracking.

 

Searching is becoming more popular than ever, and more people use internal search. That’s expected behavior in the age of search engines (like Google or Yahoo) where even small children are educated how to use search engines, how to build search queries, and how to use the search box once you are on a homepage.

 

From a business perspective, if you don’t have an excellent and intelligent search box that can provide relevant search results that are as efficient as results provided by search engines (like Google or Yahoo), you might risk people leaving your site and use an external search! In that case it’s quite likely that your competitors may appear higher in the list of results, which would mean that you miss turnover.

Sources:

http://www.nngroup.com/articles/search-visible-and-simple/
http://www.velir.com/blog/index.php/2013/05/15/search-vs-browse-website-navigations-heavyweight-title-match/
http://www.humanfactors.com/newsletters/linking_and_searching.asp
http://www.agconsult.com/en/usability-blog/navigation-versus-search
http://conversionxl.com/convert-visitors-improving-internal-site-search/
http://alistapart.com/article/internal-site-search-analysis-simple-effective-life-altering
https://econsultancy.com/blog/63800-four-reasons-why-site-search-is-vital-for-online-retailers/
http://webusability-blog.com/navigation-versus-search/
http://uxmyths.com/post/717755413/myth-search-will-solve-a-websites-navigation-problems
http://www.economist.com/node/16004344
2 http://www.getelastic.com/men-hunt-women-browse/
1 http://ux.stackexchange.com/questions/18089/how-important-is-the-search-box
http://moz.com/community/q/does-my-website-need-a-search-bar