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Design Tip:
Add Search To Your Site

by Larisa Thomason,
Senior Web Analyst,
NetMechanic, Inc.

  
August 2002 (Part 2)
Vol. 5, No. 16
 • Design Tip
 • HTML Tip
 • Beginner Tip
  

A recent study by Search Tools shows that 66% of webmasters haven't added a search engine to their site. Reasons for not doing so included time, complexity, and cost. We'll show you how to add search to your site without complex programming, and it's free!

Benefits Of Search

If you're operating a 5-page billboard site for your family's restaurant, then you don't need a site search. In a smaller site, it's easy to create a navigation system that points visitors directly to each important section.

However, visitors appreciate search capability on larger sites, ecommerce sites, and any site that deals with several different products or topics.

  • Easier site navigation. Search gives visitors a way to quickly find the information they need. This is particularly important if you're using DHTML menus, Flash menus, or other navigation systems that are inaccessible to some browsers.

  • Give visitors more control. A search function makes your site interactive and gives visitors more control over their browsing experience. Someone in a hurry may not want to slowly browse through your entire Web site, so search allows them to quickly find what they're looking for.

  • Reveal the hidden Web. Many search engine spiders avoid dynamically-generated pages, so a lot of your product information won't appear in the search engine's index. Since those pages won't act as entry points into the site, visitors need to search to find exactly what they want.

    While you can create search engine-friendly dynamic pages, always include a search function on every page in the site.

In spite of those benefits, many webmasters shy away from adding a search box to their pages because they think it requires complex programming skills. 

Can you create a simple form? That's usually all the programming knowledge you need!

Search Service Providers

It's not just easy to add search capability to your site - it's often free as well.

Many site search companies offer smaller sites free access to their search applications. Your free search tool probably won't have as many features at the paid service, but you'll be surprised at how much you can do with a free tool.

Many Web hosting companies offer search scripts that visitors can include on their site, so check with your host first. Otherwise, here are just a few of the free site search services available on the Web.

Name Features
Atomz Express Search Complete page customization, no ads, on-demand site re-indexing, supports 15 languages. Limited to sites with 500 pages or less. Must display Atomz logo.
Bravenet Customize search and results pages. Site search hosted on Bravenet's server.
FreeFind Customize search and results pages. Free accounts limited to 3,000 pages or 32 MG of storage. Site search hosted on FreeFind's server. Generates a site map for you. Supports PDF indexing.
Google Customize results page. Unlimited number of searches. Must display Google logo. Google may serve ads on the results page.

Most services offer paid versions of their tools too, in case you need more advanced features.

A Spider That's Just For You

How do these systems work?  They're like a smaller version of a large search engine spider.  But instead of crawling the entire Web, the search company sends their spider only to your Web site.  They store the results of that crawl in a database that's specific to your site.  That database resides on the search company's server.  

All you have to do to add search capability is add a simple form to your Web page.  It usually consists of a search box and an input button.  The search company gives you all the necessary information to go with the form so that it can be processed correctly.

Then, when a visitor searches your site, the query is sent to the search company. Their application uses the query to create a search results page showing those pages in your site that match the visitor's query.

That's an important point: the information the spider collects and stores is only as good as the information you've put on the site.  To have an effective internal search engine requires your site to have good content, keywords, META tags, and an accessible navigation structure. 

In other words, the same optimization techniques that contribute to a top search engine ranking in Google, Alta Vista and other top search engines also make your site's search internal engine more effective.

A high search engine rank and a truly useful site search function are closely related. So when you're using techniques recommended by Search Engine Power Pack to boost your search engine rank in Google, AltaVista, and other search engines, you're also making your site more friendly to internal searches.  

Keep Search Simple

Once you've decided to add search capability to your site and selected your search provider, consider how to integrate the search box into your existing design.

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen has studied site search from a usability perspective and offers some suggestions in his AlertBox column titled "Search: Visible and Simple." He suggests:

  • Make the search box a type-in field, not a link to a specific "Search" page. That way, visitors can start searching immediately without having to wait for another page to load.

    Nielsen reports that a search box makes visitors more likely to search:

    "When I changed the useit.com home page to include a search box instead of a link, search engine use increased by 91%.
  • Make the search box wide enough to display all the search terms. People get confused when the box is so small that much of the query disappears while they're typing it.

Placement of the search box is important too. Usability studies conducted by the Software Usability Research Laboratory (SURL) at Wichita State University found that searchers generally expect an internal search box to be located in the upper center or upper right-hand side of the page.

Another report by SURL studied user preferences regarding search results pages. It found that users preferred a moderate amount of search results per page - about 50 - to scrolling through very long results pages or viewing the results one at a time.

Don't make users guess about where your search is or how it functions. It's always better to conform to users' expectations instead of having them guess about your intentions!



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