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Top 10 Tips for Better Search Results

Last Updated Jan 2009

By: Mark Bennett - NIE VP of Engineering - Issue 7 - March 2004

Improving the Presentation and Usefulness of Your Site

  1. Resist Clutter
  2. Use Icons and Graphics When Appropriate
  3. Offer Both Native and HTML Views of Binary Documents
  4. Make it Easy to Refine Searches
  5. Searching for Nothing is Common: add "Null Search" Page(s)
  6. Finding Nothing is also Common: add a "Zero Results" Page
  7. Explain Your Search Syntax, It's Not Obvious
  8. If Your Document Dates are Always Recent, Check Them Again
  9. Omit or Truncate the Display of Long URLs in the Search Results
  10. Let Your Users Decide What's Relevant

1: Resist Clutter

We blame some of the early Internet portals for staring this trend. "If one column of content is good, the 4 or 5 must be great!"

With today's enterprise engines brimming with gee-whiz features, there's a temptation to turn them all on: resist!

Think "Zen rock garden", not "dot-com garage sale."

  • Leave white space to the sides and top and bottom of the main results list.
  • If your site navigation is on the left side and is large and/or complex, consider dropping it from the results list, and providing a "return" or "home" link in its place.
  • Be sparing in your use of additional search options, widgets, and other search decorations: limit yourself to your one or two most important items.

Interestingly, we've seen sites with 3 column results lists (site navigation, main results, and a right column of text ads) that were clean: there was adequate white space and effective use of color to clearly demarcate items.

2: Use Icons and Graphics Where Appropriate

This does NOT apply to all sites. But, if your site search returns lists of specific products or other tangible items, perhaps even people, then we strongly suggest putting a small picture of the items in the results list.

A results list with tangible pictures is light years ahead of a results list without them. And if you have a competitor that shows icons in the results, and you don't, will certainly lose business to them. Pictures speak volumes and covey immense amounts of information that text cannot match.

If your site search is more document / information centric, then graphics are probably not applicable. For information centric sites, we have heard of folks trying to put a tiny thumbnail view of each page in the results list. We think this is an interesting idea, though we've not used it personally nor talked to any clients who have, so it's hard to gauge the effectiveness. A thumbnail might convey overall page content; seeing it might give the context of whether it was a news article, or mostly text, or a report with tables, etc. It might also help a user skip pages with ton of hyperlinks that tend to spuriously match lots of searches. On the other hand, showing a tiny picture of the 2002 sales forecast versus a tiny picture of the 2003 sales forecast may not be as helpful.

3: Offer Both Native and HTML Views of Binary Documents

If your site contains more than HTML documents--such as PDF, Microsoft Word, Power Point, etc--offer your visitors a choice: view the native document with a specialized viewer or view the document converted to HTML.

  • Many search vendors support dynamically converting support binary document formats into rich HTML. Some will even markup the HTML version with highlighted search terms.
  • When offering the binary / native version of the file, it's nice to indicate this in some way. We've seen folks use a small icon to represent each file type. A legend at the bottom of the results can explain where to get viewers.
  • When offering binary files, it's nice to also show the file size. Rather than displaying the count in bytes, we suggest converting it to kilobytes or megabytes (dividing the size by the appropriate denominator) and adding a "k" or "M" suffix, and then rounding the results to the nearest integer.

4: Make it Easy to Refine Searches

  • Add a search form to the results list.
    You've probably noticed that many sites put a small search box at the top of the search results list. Most sites will even pre-fill the input box with the terms that were just searched for. This is a really nice touch, and allows visitors to refine or expand their search if they are not happy with the results.
  • Enable users to refine search from results list.
    A really nice feature, if your search engine supports it, is to allow a subsequent search done from that mini form to search above the current set of results. This should probably be a check box under the search form, and should default to being UNSELECTED--by default it should be a totally new search, unless they specifically check this checkbox.

An example: if the first search was just "printer", but the visitor really wanted troubleshooting a printing problem, they can then just enter "problems", and search against just the pages with problems and printers.

Some search engine vendors don't advertise this capability, but it's often still possible if the engine supports scripting. The idea is to keep taking the previous search and using it as a filter, along with the new search terms. If the search engine doesn't support "filters", then the previous search can be AND'ed in with the new search terms.

Offering only one form, perhaps overly complicated, is not the way to go. You can always offer an Advanced Search Page; but it will be a page rarely seen by yours.

5: Searching for Nothing is Common: Add "Null Search" Page(s)

Our work with search analytics has taught us what may seem like an odd fact: site visitors frequently click the search box without entering any search terms--they leave the input box blank. Some search engines don't allow this and bring back an error page, if this is true for yours then consider putting up a different page instead.

Why do people do this? More traditional enterprise search engines did allow null searches. If a null search was issued, the most recent documents known to the system were returned. This would effectively show "what's new" on the site. This was particularly useful if the user also selected a subsection of the site, such as FAQ's; they would see the newest FAQ's that had been added.

Fixes:

  • If your search engine supports them, make sure that null searches are enabled. In the same way that you handled the zero-results page, offer some additional help text and links.
  • If your search engine cannot do null searches, considering redirecting these searches to a "what's new" page on the site.

Other times null searches can be generated by web crawling indexers (also known as spiders). If this is happening, try filtering them out of your search analytics via the user-agent field or by IP address, or perhaps try adding an appropriate entry to your site's robots.txt

6: Finding Nothing is also Common: add a "Zero Results" Page

If a user enters a search that doesn't match any documents, you should ensure that a helpful response is displayed. The type of helpful guidance that you offer can depend on whether this is a public or Intranet site.

Examples of helpful zero results information:

  • A brief reminder of the search
  • An email link or phone number for search support
  • An automated way to expand the scope of search
    • If a filter was applied, such as a sub-site search or a date range search, offer to remove the filter and rerun the search.
    • If more than one term was entered and your search engine AND's together search terms by default, offer to re-issue the search with the terms OR'ed instead. Other engines treat strings of words as an exact phrase search by default: offer to re-issue the search with commas between each word.
  • Suggest alternative spellings of words based on known terms used on the site
  • Present a high level list of categories summarizing the type of information on the site

7: Explain Your Search Syntax: It's Not Always Obvious

The syntax of a search query, and therefore its meaning, are obvious to you at first glance, you work with it all of the time: you just type in what you're looking for and get what you want. Unfortunately, search engines vary widely in how they interpret search terms, especially if more than one word is entered.

For example, if two words are typed in, with just a single space to separate them, will your search engine: (a) look for documents with either word, (b) look for documents that must have both words, or (c) do an exact phrase search (both words in that exact order, with no words in between). And does your search engine understand the Internet style +/- prefixes to words, or does it prefer the older style "and" and "or" keywords; if it expects "and" and "or", do they need to be in upper case?

Add a small reminder message either under the search box or in a shaded box at the top or side of the page. Include a help link for more detailed information and examples.

Examples of hints you might give (depending on your search engine):

  • Enter words and phrases separated by commas Enter words and quoted phrases
  • Enter key words; prefix with +/- to include/exclude documents with those words.
  • Please phrase your question in complete English sentences.

8: If Your Document Dates are Always Recent, Check Them Again

As we discussed in "Dated Material: The Sad State of Dates" many search engines have and display complete erroneous dates for the documents they retrieve. This is usually caused by the incorrect use the last-modified date of the HTTP header sent out by many web servers.

Check that the dates displayed in your results list are correct: if all of the documents show a very recent date, such as today, or this week, or the last time you indexed your site, they are probably wrong (or you have just started writing things down in your organization).

Fixes:

  • If the dates are wrong you should correct the problem. Yes, this can be a complex issue to fix.
  • If you can't easily fix the date problems, then don't display dates at all!

Note: if you are displaying dates, don't let them take up too much room. One major search vendor defaults the date format so that it takes up an ENTIRE COLUMN of the results list, consuming almost a third of the horizontal space. Dates are normally not that important, try displaying them in a smaller font in the last line of the results list.

9: Omit or Truncate the Display of Long URLs in the Search Results

Many results lists show the actual URL of the document, perhaps in a smaller font. If these URLs are too long, they can push the right edge of the table off the screen.

Fixes:

10: Let Your Users Decide What's Relevant

Your search engine typically has a poor idea of what's relevant to a user's search, and attempting to disguise its ignorance with "relevancy bars" and the like is a waste of time and screen real estate.

You've seen then, the partially filled in green or blue bars in the left column of the results; maybe they are shaded to look 3D, or perhaps they have little green lights or stars to indicate "relevance". Not to offend those of you who still like them, but these went out of fashion long before the last millennium came to an end, yet some vendors still ship their default templates with these things turned on.

Such a cool idea, what went wrong? Some people thought they looked sexy, others silly, while still others worried about the valuable horizontal screen real estate these things used up. Our main problem with them is that they were often so misleading (or just wrong) that they are more annoying than not displaying anything.

For example: you do a search where the first screen of results is obviously junk, but the search engine assigns them all 5 stars. Or worse, all of the documents come back with exactly the same 3 star score.

Your users know whether a document is relevant or not, regardless of what your search engine thinks.

Fixes:

  • Turn off relevancy indicators and focus on providing better summaries in your results list. Give the users the information to make their own decisions about what they are looking for.
  • If your search engine REALLY gives great relevancy scores, or you paid too much money to not show this feature off, then at least consider using a numeric score or percentage in a plain text font next to the document title.

Making search results more relevant this should have been first on our list, but it's not always easy to fix, and in our experience is not amenable to any single approach or quick fix panacea. We've published a couple articles on this topic before if you're interested:

If you'd like to see more articles about this topic please drop us a note, we've love to hear from you. Tell us about your experiences. We also periodically publish guest author articles if you have something really compelling to tell the enterprise search world.