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Search Help and Usability

Preparing for two upcoming meetings with search themes (Gilbane San Francisco and Boston KM Forum) has brought to mind many issues of search usability. At the core is the issue of search literacy. Offering some fundamental searching tips to non-professional searchers often results in a surprised reaction. (e.g. When told, if seeking information about a specific topic such as “industrial engineering,” enclose it in quotes to limit the search to that phrase. Without quotes, you will get all content with “industrial” and “engineering” anywhere in the content with no explicit relationship implied.)

If you are reading this you probably know that, but many do not. In order to learn what people search for on their company intranet and how they type their search requests, I spend time reading search log files. I do this for several reasons:

  • To learn terminology searchers are using to guide taxonomy building choices
  • To see the way searches are formulated, and followed up
  • To inform design decisions about how to make searching easier
  • To see what is searched but not found to inform future content inclusion
  • To view the searcher’s next step when the results are zero or huge

wo results remain consistent: less than 1% of the searchers place a phrase inside quotations, even when there are multiple words; word are often truncated but do not include a truncation symbol (usually an asterisk, “*”). Both reveal a probable lack of search conventions understanding, a search literacy problem. Here are a couple of possible solutions:

  • Put into place better help and training mechanisms to help the lost find their way,


  • Remove the legacy practice of forcing command language type symbols on searchers for the most common search requests

Placing punctuation around a search string is a holdover from 30 years ago when searching was done using a command language. Since only a limited number of people ever knew this syntactical format, why does it persist as the default for a phrase search for Web-based search engines?

The solution of providing a better help page and getting people to actually use it is a harder proposition. This one from McGraw-Hill for BusinessWeek Online is pretty simple with just seven tips but who reads it? I expect very few, although it could dramatically improve their search results.

If you are trying to improve the search experience for your intranet, there are two resources to consult for content usability on all fronts, not just search:, Jakob Nielsen’s Website and Jared Spool’s UIEtips, User Interface Engineering’s free email newsletter. In the meantime, think about whether you need to demand more core search usability or tunable default options from vendors, or whether better interface design could guide searchers to better results.

1 Comment

  1. Stephen Lucchetti

    Another alternative to “phrase searching” would be to turn it totally around and assume that the searcher wants to search as a phrase! Or, possibly better yet automatically do the search both as a bound phrase as well as anded words but push the phrase items to the top of the hit list.
    — Stephen Lucchetti

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