Ten Observations About Search Interfaces

These observations are just that, observations. Not rules or laws. If it looks more like a rule than a observation, then add the rest of the sentence “or it won’t get used” to turn it back into a observation. It’s from an longer essay on search I wrote in order to publish it, I ended up folding most of it into the second edition of Blueprints for the Web. This section didn’t feel “IA” enough to be part of that book, it may still go into a book on search someday.  it’s based on eight years of working with search in many contexts from web search to enterprise search. Some of these may prove not to be true– I originally called this “ten facts on search interfaces” but who knows. They could be proven wrong. Somehow I doubt it. Search is remarkably rigid.

1. A search box needs to look like a search box. If you use css to make it look like something other than a form element, replace the word “search” with “go” or some other space saving/brand “enhancing” effort, the number of searches will go down.

2. Don’t prepopulate the search box with text such as “Type search here.” The number of searches will go down (because it interferes with people’s ability to recognize it as a form element), and really, most people know how to use a search box.

3. Bold and Blue: keywords should be bold, and should always be in the result. Links should be blue. Good old fashioned 0000cc.

4. Showing URLs: This makes sense if you need to distinguish location. If you are searching one domain, it’s not necessary. But the difference between shopping.domain.com and www.domain.com can help a scanning searcher.

Do not link the url; it creates unnecessary page weight and makes the page harder to scan.

5. Numbers. Yahoo numbers their results, Google doesn’t (otherwise how would you know whose was figure 1 and whose was figure 2?). Numbers have been shown to be qualitatively better, but not quantitatively. This means users say they like numbers, but bucket testing doesn’t show any measurable advantage. So you can ask yourself, is it worth the pixels?

6. Snippets vs. descriptions: A snippet is a bit of text scraped from the website that includes the keyword. A description is human written, and describes the website. What’s better? It varies widely depending on the quality of your scraping technology, the quality of your staff writers, but if the description does not have the keyword in it, the snippet is better.

7. Graphics almost always make things worse.

Let’s say you are considering adding an image to a best bet about the Beatles. Pick the image on the left, and you improve click-through, pick the image on the right and you damage it. Even though you may have been a fan of the Beatles in their latter years, the first image is far more iconic. But how many bands have easy, iconic images? How many concepts?

The same holds true for product shots; unless you perfectly match the searcher’s mental model of what they are looking for, they will dismiss the entire result. It gets worse when you add big arrows, animations, or illustrations. In other words, the harder you try to draw attention, the more you become invisible. Graphics often get misread as advertising.

Conversely, small icons can occasionally help rather than hinder differentiation between best bets and results, providing honesty that algorithm purists often desire.

8. Balance your page. You can make sponsored results look more like “true” results, and their click-through will go up. But the true results click-through will go down, and your visitors will trust your search engine less and visit less. A short term pop in revenue may cost you later in retention; make design choices carefully.

9. The first result gets the most clicks. The second, the second most. And so on, right? Strangely enough there is a slight increase again in the last one or two results. This is true in search, it’s true in navigation bars as well. If you want people to get good results (i.e. more relevant) it’s a good idea to keep the default number of results on a page down to about ten. If you want more click through on a navigation bar item, make it first, second, third or last.

10. The bottom of the page is often forgotten. But it’s the safety net for those searchers who haven’t seen what they want. And searchers are more likely to abandon their search (to try another service, sometimes) than click to the second page. Encourage them to hang around with query helpers, another search box, spelling corrections, or even another search on your site (if you have one.)