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Search vs. navigate: How people behave on websites – do they search or do they navigate?

Navigating and searching are both important ways of finding desirable content. How important is the internal search box on your website?

Here at Cludo, we received a really surprising question at a recent conference we attended. During our presentation one of the participants asked bluntly: “Do we really need to have a search box on our homepage? Do people even use a search box?

We’ll be honest: that question gave us pause. Because we work in site search every day, we understand its value really well. But that brave and honest participant made us realize that we need more information to convince others. There was a knowledge gap over the value of site search — and to fill it, we needed some research.

When we started digging further on the internet we 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… 
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 built-in search bars. Search engines, like Google or Bing, allow us to quickly find answers to any question we have.

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

Eternal battle between site search box and navigation … or not?

Searching generic GIFSearching generic GIF


Navigating generic GIF


The two primary navigation methods (navigating and searching) both have an important place in the modern Internet.  But it seems as if there has always been a battle between site navigation and the search box. Web owners are inclined to either underestimate the power of the search box or, on the flip side, think that placing a search box on their page will solve all of their UX navigation issues and challenges.

Good navigation and a good linking structure are vital for the success of a website. Browsing is the primary navigation method on millions of websites, but as a website grows,  it can become quite difficult to solve UX challenges with structured navigation. Additionally, data shows visitors are becoming more and more comfortable using a search interface to discover new content and to navigate large sites — our research shows that 43% of users go directly to the search bar as soon as they arrive on a website.

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

1. Minimal navigation with a main focus on search functionality: all of the giant sites like Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, etc. have a complex navigation where ease is not the priority. The search box plays a dominant role and is placed in the center. Navigation is mostly used to provide links to user profiles or accounts.

2. Standard navigation (top menu, drop down menu, side menu) plus a standard search box – a combo solution: there are millions of examples on the web of this approach. 

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, photographer portfolio pages.)

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

The answer to that question is: ‘NO.‘ Each Internet users is different and, therefore, they use different techniques. Some are better at recognizing things than recalling them from memory, some prefer to search and find content independently of a website’s attempts to control the navigation paths. Search boxes and navigation should go hand-in-hand, rather than competing, in order to help users reach their goals.

Known patterns in searching and navigating

We used the sources referenced at the bottom of the page to see that:

  • People who use search box know specifically what they are looking for — often as specific as an actual product name. People who navigate explore more related content. Users who utilize the search are often in the late-stage of buying mode, when they have gathered all of the information they deem necessary and they have made a decision on which product to buy.
  • Search lets users control their own actions and find things they are looking for; navigation attempts to guide users to their destination.
  • Statistically, women are more likely to navigate, whereas men are more likely to use a search bar (men are “hunters” and women are “browsers” online). 
  • 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 user’s 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 the 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 or try to target only one group of users.

According to Comprend, 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 43% of people visiting a start page on a website go straight to the internal search box in order to navigate. Those figures prove that search box becomes essential navigation tool on every website.

We have conducted a study case based on one of our clients, the Vejen municipality in Denmark. 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. 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.

What it all means for your website

It is very important to understand visitors and their patterns in order to understand how they use your site and what they are looking for. If you still hesitate on whether or not 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.

Internal searches are becoming more popular than ever. That’s expected behavior in the age of search engines (like Google or Bing) where even small children are educated on 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 effective as results provided by search engines like Google, you might risk people leaving your site and using an external search instead! In that case it’s quite likely that your competitors may appear higher in the list of results, which would mean that you could miss out on potential customers.

Ready to get started with a better site search experience?

Simply request a demo below to get in touch with one of our friendly staff members for a view of our platform.

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