If you haven’t heard of information architecture, then it’s about time you did your research. When you make design decisions for your website, you’re engaging in information architecture. It’s an all-encompassing field of study that helps us understand how a user’s experience is affected by the slightest changes to organization, navigation, tagging, labelling and other systems. One such system that IA seeks to explain is that of search systems. This may come as a shock, but your website’s search engine is just as important as any other aspect of the site.
People use your search function more often than you think
A lot of visitors are on the prowl for something so specific that they’ll forego menus entirely and opt instead for your website search engine. If your website is new, maybe you won’t have many recurring visits just yet. But, if you’re investing the time and money to develop your project, you will get those hits. Return visitors are much more likely to use the search box since they’ve already browsed around and have a hang of things. But what happens when your search functionality is sub-par?
Website search installations out-of-the-box
Most CMS’s (content management systems) have extension options to improve the search system that comes stock with core content system files. So, for example, WordPress has a basic query box that you can implement, and position in your header or your menu. You know what it is, you’ve seen it a million times: that box with the placeholder text that says “search”, or it’s the box that appears once you click on the little magnifying glass icon.
The basic search function is alright for a lightweight blog, but if you have lots of content, or even if you don’t, you should consider updating to a more rigorous and customizable search plugin, module, or what-have-you. Visitors who have to deal with a sluggish search experience will scurry off quicker than you can say “stay!”
Understanding your website search engine
In order to optimize search engine success, you need to understand how a search system is implemented on your website, behind the scenes.
Search systems on function similarly to those of search engines like Google and Bing. The basic system creates an index of all the content on your site, and relates search queries to that index in order to deliver the most appropriate content to the searcher.
Different systems have different ways of indexing. WordPress’ out-of-the-box search functionality isn’t lovely. Why? Because it’s too simple. A good search system creates comprehensive indexes in order to return the most relevant content.
How an index can be customized
Did you know that there is software you can implement on your CMS to allow for partial or total customization of the search system? Yes! It’s awesome. The standard search on most CMS’s won’t even let you assign value to different elements of a page document. What does having such control mean? It means that you can make terms that appear in the title of a page more valuable than those in the body. It means you can decide whether text in comments should be included in the index. It means that you can include alt text in the index, and it also means that you can strip “stop words” like and, but, the, a, etc. from the index.
The aspects of a website’s search capabilities you need to care about
Depending on your website’s design or theme, you can control how search results appear. This is incredibly important, because search results need to reflect the purpose of your website, company, organization, or service.
If you’re a video blog, should search results display the title and excerpt? No way! The results should show a thumbnail video! If you’re a news organization, then the date of posts should carry more weight in search results than for a product review site, and that date ought to be prominently displayed.
Your website search engine should be sufficiently customizable that you can exclude specific pages as well. It should allow you to highlight the search queries in results pages. It ought to make room for fuzzy matching (approximate matches instead of just exact). It should definitely allow you to include all post types.
And it should offer search analytics. You know Google Analytics? Good. Search analytics will show you what your visitors are searching for, giving you valuable data that you can use to improve search functions and more.
How can you make your site’s search better?
Alright, we’ve given you enough theory. Let’s close by taking a look at the Joomla Extensions, WordPress Plugins, and Drupal Modules that work best for all the tactics we’ve been talking about:
- Relevanssi: the most popular of WordPress search plugins, you have a lot of control to build the index
- Swifttype Search: runs on its own server, for a price
- Yolink: we like it because it has multisite support
- Universal AJAX Live Search: this extension allows for eye-catching results page displays
- Articles Filter: not exactly a search extension, but this is pretty sweet for its ability to let you control how users are able to order your content
- PixSearch: It displays results in real-time from the search input box itself.
- Custom Search: You get really advanced search criteria, including searching by post type
- Search API: Developers love this module because it’s flexible and adaptable.
Give some thought to your website’s search from the get-go. It’ll save you time in the long run.