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In Defense of Search

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  • p_morville
    In Defense of Search (December 7, 2001) http://semanticstudios.com/publications/semantics/search.html Jared Spool loves to slander search. He says searching
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 7, 2001
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      In Defense of Search (December 7, 2001)
      http://semanticstudios.com/publications/semantics/search.html

      Jared Spool loves to slander search.

      He says "searching stinks." He proclaims it's "worse than nothing."
      He exhorts web designers to "keep users from using search."

      And he backs up these defamatory accusations with $3,000,000 worth of
      user research data.

      Is Jared right? Do his research results tell the whole truth and
      nothing but the truth? Is browsing better than searching?

      No, No, and No!

      Gross Generalizations

      My quarrel is not with Jared's results but with his conclusions. I
      too have seen users fail miserably in their attempts to find content
      using web site and intranet search engines. There's no doubt that the
      implementation of search on many sites actually does stink.

      But to draw the general conclusion that search is an ineffective tool
      from these specific observations of existing e-commerce web sites is
      like eating a frozen egg roll and declaring that all Chinese food is
      bad.

      Injurious Impact

      What I'm most concerned about is the impact of Jared's proclamations.
      He urges designers to focus attention on improving the site's
      category links. This is a good thing and I'm glad his research
      illuminates the critical importance of information architecture
      design to overall usability!

      However, to encourage taxonomy design at the expense of search system
      design is a bad message to be sending in today's web environment.

      Investment in search system design is already absurdly low. In my
      consulting engagements, I see organizations of all shapes and sizes
      investing heavily in taxonomy design while giving almost no thought
      to the search system.

      Why? Because taxonomy design is the current rage. Because many people
      don't understand how search can be improved. Because search engine
      configuration is often "owned" by the IT group rather than by the
      folks responsible for design, usability and information architecture.
      And because Jared keeps slamming search.

      The pendulum needs to swing back the other way. Many web sites and
      intranets can benefit most dramatically and immediately from
      enhancements to the search system. We're talking major ROI here. Lots
      of return with relatively little investment.

      Search is Essential

      It's simply a matter of size. Small sites don't need search. Big ones
      do. An e-commerce site with 100 products may be able to get by
      without search. A large, complex web site or intranet with 10,000 or
      100,000 documents and applications will require search for a
      significant percentage of users and tasks.

      A taxonomy can only do so much. Any hierarchy is ultimately subject
      to the depth/breadth tradeoff, the ambiguity of language, and the
      limits of human cognition.

      So unless you're running a tiny web site or intranet, you have no
      choice in the matter. You must buy a search engine and your users
      will use it.

      Search is a System

      But a search engine is not enough! Designers need to take a systemic
      approach that recognizes the roles played by the search interface,
      the content and the results presentation.

      [IMAGE]

      If your site is bloated with ROT (Redundant, Outdated or Trivial
      content), search results will suffer. If your ranking algorithm
      buries the most relevant results, users will fail to find them. Like
      many other complex systems, search is only as good as its weakest
      link.

      And we need to design for the iterative, interactive nature of users'
      information seeking behavior, recognizing that people need to move
      fluidly between searching, browsing and asking modes.

      Search is Multifarious

      How can Jared universally castigate search when there are so many
      unique approaches ranging from the mundane to the exotic?

      By matching search interface design with faceted classification, we
      can support parametric searching.

      By studying search logs and identifying business priorities, we can
      feature best bets in our results display.

      By developing controlled vocabularies, we can manage the synonym
      problem.

      By combining natural language parsing and human-created knowledge-
      bases we can provide interactive agents.

      By tracking link references or user behavior we can tap into the
      adaptive power of collaborative filtering.

      By leveraging category structures, we can provide results in context.

      These are just some of the tools and techniques we need to explore
      and evaluate before deep-sixing search.

      Search Sucks

      But not in a bad way! Search sucks tremendously valuable data about
      your users into your organization. The smartest companies are
      aggressively mining their search logs, learning what their customers
      want and how they describe these needs in their own words.

      Web groups have been using this data for years to inform taxonomy
      design, controlled vocabulary development and the selection of "best
      bets." Increasingly, other groups such as marketing and research are
      beginning to recognize it as a timely source of information about
      customer preferences and industry trends.

      Long Live Search

      I really don't have anything against Jared Spool and I don't own a
      bunch of stock in a search engine vendor. I simply see search as a
      hugely under-developed component of many web sites and intranets.

      Yes, search has been pathetically implemented on countless sites.
      Yes, search is an easy target. But that's exactly why I wish Jared
      would stop kicking this poor, shivering underdog.

      It may look ugly right now. It may even have a few fleas. But it's
      got great potential. Long live search!
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