In Defense of Search
- In Defense of Search (December 7, 2001)
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!
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
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.
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
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
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.
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!