Search and navigation interconnections

When people visit a particular page of your website and then carry out a search from that page, it is often a sign that the page navigation and/or content is not working well.

When we’re observing customers carrying out tasks on websites we notice certain common patterns. For example, we find that when people arrive at a particular site they start by navigating about 70% of the time. When people get stuck navigating they may resort to using site search. Thus, it can be very useful to identify the pages on a website where the most search is occurring.

What this can indicate is that for customers, something is missing from that page. It’s useful to look at the search terms being used because this gives insight into what people were expecting to find on the particular page. The deeper you go into a website’s structure, the more important these insights become. So, for example, such analysis will be less useful if you analyse behaviour at a homepage level, but will be highly relevant if you analyse behaviour at a product or service page level.

Sometimes, we find that the answer the person is looking for is actually on the page they are looking at but because the page is either badly written or designed, they can’t find it. So, if you’re getting lots of searches on a page containing configuration information for “configuration” then you are getting a strong indication that the page is not communicating properly about configuration.

There are certain tasks that are search-dominant, there are certain tasks that are navigation-dominant, and there are certain tasks where people like to use both search and navigation, at different steps in the task.

However, it is clear that the navigation, metadata, and information architecture are the foundation of all quality web design. The better the navigation and information architecture, the better the search will work, because search loves well-structured content with metadata that contains the words the person is searching with.

Despite the fact that information architecture is the foundation of web design it is generally neglected. It rarely gets the attention it deserves. Time and time again we come across websites and apps where hardly any time is spent designing the navigation. A classic example is the ‘hamburger’ menu on many apps. Hamburger menu design is no menu design. The designers feel that the navigation has so little value that they can hide it behind an icon. Instead of doing the hard work of pulling out and highlighting the navigation elements that should be highlighted in the mobile design, they conveniently hide it all behind a poorly understood icon.

Recently, I heard an executive say that he didn’t particularly like the navigation on a new site that he had just launched. The site represented a considerable investment on behalf of the organization and they clearly knew that the navigation would confuse customers. But this was not a serious issue for them.

Confusing menus and links are the number one contributor to poor customer experience and task failure on the Web and in apps. We see it year in, year out, and it’s not getting better because designers and managers don’t take it seriously enough.

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