The two primary website navigation methods -- self-navigation and on-site search -- both have an important place in the consumption of modern website information. There has been a longstanding debate between user experience (UX) professionals on the merits of user-directed navigation and the website search function. Website owners often underestimate the power of the search function or, mistakenly, think that just placing a search box on a page will solve all of their navigation issues.
Good navigation and well-developed linking strategies are vital to the success of a website. Browsing is the primary navigation method on most websites today (drop down menus, banners, and links), but as a website’s content evolves it can become cumbersome to solve UX challenges with structured navigation alone. Website users have become comfortable with the search interface to discover content and to navigate more quickly through complex layers of content to pinpoint information.
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. Nielsen Norman Group and others indicate that more than 50% of people visiting a start page on a website go straight to the internal search box in order to navigate. Even if you’re not a “searcher” in your own content consumption habits, take note of how a substantial percentage of website users want to find information. With shorter attention spans, higher functional expectations and more options than ever, website users demand efficient information access. Successful companies offer features that make their website content highly accessible.
An added benefit of enhanced on-site search and segmented or faceted navigation is that it can act as a proxy for personalization. A user customizes their experience in a self-directed manner through search without predictive or programmatic personalization being implemented.
Most of the advanced on-site search platforms, such as Coveo, enable website administrators and business users to make adjustments to the search results. Think of it as content management for search. These tools also enable organizations to connect on-site search results to other data sources that don’t have to be stored or normalized in the content management system (CMS). A user searches on the website and results can be returned that are mixed from multiple sources such as customer relationship management (CRM), product information systems and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems with recommended search results curated by those with user access to the website CMS. Think about the impact that could have on your business over basic search that returns results based only on keywords and phrases.
Enhanced on-site search is not a supplemental feature any longer. Websites that have matured and have multiple sets of product and service information that appeals to more than one target audience need to evolve. By embracing a strategy of both enhanced on-site search and strategic user interface (UI) design marketers will improve access to their content. This can often mean the difference in keeping a website user long enough to make a brand or purchase decision and loosing them, through frustration, to a competitor.
When you’ve decided to move beyond basic search, keep these important factors in mind:
- Improve design cues to encourage site search anywhere within the website
- Ensure the search utility can handle long-tail terms for more accurate results
- Leverage autocomplete to speed user input and search results
- Enable filtering of search results in a meaningful way
- Incorporate smart breadcrumbs to customize in-search experience
It’s important to understand website visitor habits, their navigation and content consumption patterns and how they find content on your website. Analytics provide the foundation for ongoing enhanced search optimization and help savvy organizations make solid search functionality and UI enhancement decisions.