Good structure and navigation are essential to a well-designed website. When implemented properly, a simple search facility and a site map will provide users of larger websites with alternative means to find what they are looking for easily.
A search box for your site should be visible from all pages and, in particular, visible on the main page. By placing the search box at the top of each page, alongside the main navigation menus, your users will be able to start a search before the page has finished loading.
The default search should be simple so that your users can just type a few keywords into the box and submit the search, without having to learn any complicated search syntax. An advanced search, linked from the main page, will allow users to perform more powerful searches and find documents quickly and accurately.
A flawed search engine, which produces no results when matching documents obviously exist is frustrating and will cause users to lose confidence in your site. It's better to have no search facility than a broken one. Test your search engine for known keywords to make sure it picks up documents you know to exist. If you do not wish to provide your own search engine, use an established one such as Google's Free SiteSearch. For example, adding these lines to your page:
<form method="get" action="http://www.google.com/search"> <input size="31" value="" name="q" /> <input name="btnG" type="submit" value="Google Search" /> <input name="domains" type="hidden" value="www.aptivate.org" /><br /> <input name="sitesearch" type="radio" value="" /> the web <input value="www.aptivate.org" name="sitesearch" type="radio" /> this site </form>
will produce a search facility like this:
Submitting the Search
Once the search is submitted, avoid displaying an intermediate page saying Please wait... before the search results appear. This will only add to the delay. Most browsers have built-in animation to indicate that a search is in progress.
The search results page should not contain so many results that they take a long time to download and display or so few that the user has to download several pages of results before finding the one they want. 20 results per page is a good compromise. Over a low bandwidth connection, it should be possible to read the first search results whilst the rest of the results are being downloaded.
The search results should contain a summary of each document in the form of a preview or extract, which will allow the user to select the most relevant documents to download without having to spend time downloading entire documents.
Use of document metadata can also help users locate documents relevant to their needs. Document metadata are data that describe a document such as a PDF. Examples of such metadata are a short description of the document and the search terms (keywords) that may be used to locate it. The accuracy of the metadata is of key importance if this approach is used, particularly in the case of scanned documents where no plain text is available for searching. For HTML and PDF documents, it is important that the title accurately reflects the contents of the document as search engines will make use of this. Some search engines may also use HTML META tags, such as keywords and description. However these are subject to abuse by unscrupulous websites attempting to draw more traffic to them by using false keywords and so search engines tend to place less emphasis on them or ignore them altogether. The PDF standard also allows for metadata but there is no evidence to suggest that these are actually used by search engines.
With larger projects and repositories of information, it is possible to make an offline search interface to a website or document repository, which installs on the user's computer and allows them to search for documents without needing Internet access. This could be made available for download from the website and could also be distributed on CD-ROMs. Moving the online searching process to the local computer is much more efficient in situations where Internet connectivity is a problem and where the repository is likely to be used regularly within an institution. Since a significant effort may be required to achieve this, it is often worthwhile to carry out research into patterns of usage by institutions currently accessing website content. This will help you to identify the number of regular users in low bandwidth environments who might benefit from an offline approach.
Another method to allow users of your website to find information quickly is to provide a site map linked from the main page, which is a table of contents for your site. Obviously the site map must be kept up-to-date with any changes to the structure of your website. Only consider adding a site map if you can be sure of this. As with the search facility, not including a site map is better than including a broken one.
SummaryA search facility may reduce the number of pages needing to be downloaded to navigate to desired information if:
- Basic searches are keyword-based and simple to use
- The box or link is visible and accessible from the top of a website's main page
- A search query returns about 20 results per page
- Results provide adequate metadata for users to recognise their desired page