Is a Site-Wide Search Tool Right for Your Site?

This article is split into these sections.

  1. What Is a Site Search?
  2. How Can a Site Search Help You?
  3. When to Use a Site Search on Your Site
  4. When NOT to Use a Site Search on Your Site
  5. Alternatives to Site Searches
  6. Resources

What Is a Site Search?

A "site search" is a feature of your site that visitors use to search your site.

For instance, you’ve seen this on any number of sites:

We always want to work towards creating a better user experience, so let's examine the the considerations for adding a search to your site.

How Can a Site Search Help You?

Your web audience wants to find information on your site as quickly and painlessly as possible. Search engines are one tool they can use to do this.

When to Use a Site Search on Your Site.

When You Have a Huge Site

Search engines work best with lots of content. So, if you have a large web site like Microsoft, eBay, or the New York Times, you definitely want a search engine.

However, most of us do not have sites nearly that large.

When Your Site Navigation Starts to Become Less Effective

Think about your own site. How well does the site navigation work? It should easily get your site visitors to the main sections and subsections of your site.

Is there any area of your site in which navigation becomes cumbersome?

For instance, the press release archive on the Michigan State University Newsroom web site is split up into months of the year from March 1999 to the present. This works fine if you only want to browse releases issued in, say, April of 2001.

However, those dates will not help when you want to find press releases that have to do with something specific, like Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

That is where searching comes in. You could browse for hours looking for articles on GMOs, or you could search through the press releases using the built-in search engine and get your results in seconds.

When NOT to Use a Site Search on Your Site

When You Have a Small Site

Search engines work best when they have lots of content to sift through. A search engine is only as good as the results it brings back. When a search is used on a small site, often the results page says something like "No results matched your search terms."

If your site search keeps returning poor results for people, it may be an indication that your site does not yet have enough content for this tool. Consider some more appropriate alternatives for sites this size.

Alternatives to Site Searches

Really Good Site Navigation

If your web site has links that clearly direct people to the information they are seeking, then you have little need for a search engine. Find out how your audience talks about your content and make sure the words you use in your navigation and other links resonate with your audience. Do this by testing the navigation with real, live site visitors – do not assume what you have works.

A really good navigation system is always essential. Do not let your site search become a crutch for a mediocre navigation system.

Keyword Listings

It is quite possible that your audience will search for something on your site using words that you don’t use.

For instance, if you consistently use the word “television” in your site and a site visitor searches your site for the word “TV”, your visitor may get no results. A good thesaurus built in to your search engine can help, but with features comes cost.

(Note: For a deeper look, see this discussion of XML and ontologies.)

If your content is focused on specific topics, a keyword list might be the way to go.

Clickable keyword listings are a way for your visitors to scan a list of words or phrases that you use in your site, instead of guessing at them via a search. Visitors may see the synonymous phrase in your list and identify it as what they are looking for.


Low Cost Site Search Tools for Your Site

If you think that your web site will benefit from a site search tool, there are many free or low cost options available. A search on Google returns many of them.