Implementing a Quality Search Function on Your Web Site

Last Updated Oct 17, 2007 2:54 PM EDT

Since web users often rely on a site's search function to quickly find the content they need, getting your site's search capability working properly is critical—particularly when you're dealing with a lot of content. A reliable and easy to use procedure may even encourage visitors to stay longer and browse for more information.

What You Need to KnowWhat's most important to remember when planning a search function?

Location! Always make sure your search function is prominently displayed on your Web site. Visitors can't use it until they find it. Ideally, a search box should be available on every page, for convenience sake.

Should I consider building my own?

You shouldn't have to, since there are many, many vendors supplying quality search software. Rare is the site that cannot use one of these off-the-shelf search programs.

Is there anything else to consider?

Make sure your search function is effective. Despite search being such an important activity, a surprising number of Web sites still do it badly. Don't be one of them.

What to DoKnow the Search Types

There are essentially two approaches to Web site search:

  • Basic search. This is sufficient for most smaller Web sites. Any site with more than 50 pages of content should consider providing a basic search function. While 50 pages sounds like a massive amount of content, the number of individual pages adds up quick during the design phase.
  • Advanced search. This is an additional option to basic search with more capabilities. It is strongly recommended for Web sites with more than 500 pages of content.
Follow General Standards For Design

These three general standards apply to search:

  • The best font for search is Arial. It is a narrow typeface that can be easily read and also allows for the maximum number of characters to be entered into the smallest space. Because Arial is a "sans-serif" font, it is also more easily read on smaller computer. screens. An alternate font is "Verdana," but it is a larger font and requires more on-screen space.
  • After entering their keywords or search term, visitors should be able to initiate a search with either a single touch of the return key or by clicking on a button marked "Search." It's what Web surfers expect.
  • All search functions create an index of the Web site. However, be sure that indexing occurs regularly; otherwise recently published content will not be displayed in search returns. That renders the index increasingly worthless.
Put the Search Box Where Visitors Expect to See It

Search is something Web surfers do all the time, so the basic search option should be available on every page of the Web site. Don't hide it behind any kind of link. There are two common places where search boxes are found on Web sites today: at the top right of the Web site home page or near the top left of the page, directly underneath the organization logo. For a basic search function:

  • The search box must be sufficiently large to allow a minimum of 20 characters to be entered.
  • The font should be Arial, as noted, and the font size should be 10 point, certainly no less than 8 point. Anything smaller becomes hard to read.
  • A button labeled "Search" should appear at the right of the search box;
  • If the Web site has an advanced search option, a text link labeled "Advanced Search" should appear nearby.
Include an Advanced Search Function On Large Web

Advanced search capabilities allow visitors to refine their search on the basis of various parameters. The larger the Web site, the more important advanced search becomes. Boolean search, one form of advanced search, allows you to search for a particular word while, for example, excluding another word. If metadata (data that describes other data) has been collected, it may be possible to search by geographic region or subject area or to search for documents by a particular author during a particular time period.

Design No-frills Displays of Search Results

Search is a very functional activity, which means a search results page should not contain anything to distract the searcher. It should just give the results. A particular set of search results should include:

  • The title or heading of the web page that the search result refers to, shown in bold type and including a hyperlink to that page for quick access
  • A two-line summary describing the content on that page
  • The URL for that page
  • The date of publication for that page
Match the Search Software to the Size of the Web Site

There is a wide variety of excellent, competitively priced basic search software available that is easy and quick to install. Selecting a search function for larger Web sites is naturally more complex; and, as a search option becomes more advanced or sophisticated, more customization will be required. Numerous companies provide hosted search engine solutions, which do not require the installation of any software on the Web site itself. This is apt to make the implementation easier, but it's also a service you'll pay for, usually on a monthly basis.

If a Web site has hundreds or thousands of pages or items, then an appropriate search system may be critical to the success of your business—especially if e-commerce is an important sales channel. Accordingly, you should be prepared to make a significant investment of time to ensure you find the right solution, one tailored it to your specific needs.

Where to Learn MoreBook:

Grappone, Jennifer, and Gradiva Couzin. Search Engine Optimization: An Hour a Day. Sybex, 2006.

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