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Chapter 6. Searching Systems

6.1. Searching and Your Web Site

The preceding three chapters were intended to help you create the best browsing system possible for your web site. This chapter describes when to use a search engine with your site and demonstrates techniques that will make searching work best for it.

Throughout this chapter, we use examples of searching systems from major sites which allow you to search the entire Web, as well as site-specific search engines. Although these Web-wide tools are different in that they index a much broader collection of content than your search system will, it is nonetheless very useful to study them. Of all searching systems, none has undergone the testing, usage, and investment that Web-wide search tools have, so why not benefit from their research?

6.1.1. When Not To Make Your Site Searchable

Before we delve into searching systems, we need to make a point: think twice before you make your site searchable.

What? What's the point of having a web site if people can't find information in it?

Your site should of course support the finding of its information. But don't assume a search engine alone will satisfy all users' information needs. While many users want to search a site, some just want to browse it.

Also, does your site have enough content to merit the use of a search engine? How much is enough? It's hard to say. It could be five resources or fifty; no specific number serves as a threshold. Perhaps a site with five long, dense documents deserves a search engine more than one with a collection of twenty brief, well-labeled documents. In any case, you'll want to balance the time necessary to set up and maintain a searching system with the payoff it brings to your site's users.

Because many site developers see search engines as the solution to the problems that users are experiencing when trying to find information in their sites, search engines become bandages for sites with poorly designed browsing systems. If you see yourself falling into this trap, you should probably suspend implementing your searching system until you fix your browsing system's problems.

Search engines are fairly easy to get up and running, but like much of the Web, they are difficult to set up effectively. As a user of the Web, you've certainly seen incomprehensible search interfaces, and we're sure that your queries have retrieved some pretty strange results. This often is the result of a lack of planning by the site developer, who probably installed the search engine with its default settings, pointed it at his or her site, and forgot about it. So, if you don't plan on putting some significant time into configuring your search engine properly, reconsider your decision to implement it.

Now that we've got our warnings and threats out of the way, we'll discuss when to implement searching systems, and how you can make them work better.

6.1.2. When To Make Your Site Searchable

Most web sites, as we know, aren't planned out in much detail before they're built. Instead, they grow organically. This may be all right for smaller web sites that aren't likely to expand much, but for ones that become popular, more and more content and functional features get added haphazardly, leading to a navigation nightmare.

There's a good analogy of physical architecture. Powell's Books (http://www.powells.com), which claims to be the largest bookstore in the world, covers an entire city block (43,000 square feet) in Portland, Oregon. We guess that it originally started as a single small storefront on that block, but as their business grew, they knocked a doorway through the wall into the next storefront, and so on, until they occupied the whole block. The result is a hodgepodge of chambers, halls with odd turns, and unexpected stairways. This chaotic labyrinth is a charming place to wander and browse, but if you're searching for a particular title, good luck. It will be difficult to find what you're looking for, although you might serendipitously stumble onto something better.

Yahoo! once was a Web version of Powell's. Everything was there, but fairly easy to find. Why? Because Yahoo!, like the Web, was relatively small. At its inception, Yahoo! pointed to a few hundred Internet resources, made accessible through an easily browsable subject hierarchy. No search option was available, something unimaginable to Yahoo! users today. But things soon changed. Yahoo! had an excellent technical architecture that allowed site owners to easily self-register their sites, but Yahoo!'s information architecture wasn't very well-planned, and couldn't keep up with the increasing volume of resources that were added daily. Eventually, the subject hierarchy became too cumbersome to navigate, and the Yahoo! people installed a search engine as an alternative way of finding information in the site. Nowadays it's a decent bet that more people use Yahoo!'s search engine instead of browsing through all those hierarchical subject categories, although the browsable categories remain useful as a supplement to the searching process (and, in fact, are included in search results).

Your site probably doesn't contain as much content as Yahoo! does, but if it's a substantial site, it probably merits a search engine. There are good reasons for this: users won't be willing to browse through your site's structure. Their time is limited, and their cognitive overload threshold is lower than you think. Interestingly, sometimes users won't browse for the wrong reasons; that is, they search when they don't necessarily know what to search for. Even though they would be better served by browsing, they search anyway.

You should also consider creating a searching system for your site if it contains highly dynamic content. For example, if your site is a Web-based newspaper, you could be adding dozens of story files daily. For this reason, you probably wouldn't have the time each day to maintain elaborate tables of contents, browsable indices, and other browsing systems. A search engine can help you by automatically indexing the contents of the site once or many times per day. Automating this process ensures that users have quality access to your site's content, and you can spend time doing things other than manually indexing and linking the story files.



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