We are all spoiled by the Google search user experience — enter a term and you generally get usable and relevant results. What a concept! For the most part, we don't see the same user experience on website search engines. Even if the results you get back are relevant, they are often displayed in such a poor manner that you can't tell if it is worth clicking on any of the results.

There are some simple ways you can improve your search results to work better for your users. Of course there are also some pretty complicated and harder-to-implement fixes, but I'll save those for another blog post...

Here are some quick fixes:

  • Place a search field on every page of the site (generally at the top). Make sure the search box has enough room for longer queries;
  • Ensure that your search results fit with the overall design of your site;
  • Display a returned item's title, URL, author's name, publication date, format (HTML, PDF, XLS) and a short summary of the item;
  • Turn on "did you mean?" functionality to correct spelling errors or other common mistakes;
  • Include site map (or link to it) when no results are found for the search term;
  • Offer search tips or help information when there are no results;
  • Review your search logs and offer best bets for the top 100 queries. Make these stand out from the regular search results;
  • Add content to answer common queries that currently get no matches;
  • Give users the opportunity to refine their search or search for a new term;
  • Make sure that your site index is updated when new content is posted (or schedule it to occur regularly); and
  • Allow a user to narrow a search once they are viewing their results. Users may want to narrow the search by type of document or by section of the site.

Don't under-estimate the importance of providing a usable search experience. In some of our usability tests up to half of the users tested have started a task by entering the item they are looking for in the search box!