A more useful homepage search

We have been slowly rolling out a new search page from wayne.edu over the past few months. This search page not only looks far better than the old Google partner search that they have since discontinued but is far more functional.

Making search useful

Over the past year we have been doing some significant research with how people use the wayne.edu search box. Last year I did a presentation on analyzing the real time searches and the recent changes have been a result of that research.

We realized that visitors search because Google taught them to. I believe this because we see searches for simple things that are clearly on the page if the person just looked in the actual content area. Doing a search though personalizes what they are looking for the Google is so good that often the snippet of the page containing their answer gets called out as the description for the first or second result. Thus allowing them to get the information they are looking for without having to scan the page.

Types of searches

As we are watching the searches come in throughout the day we started to notice some patterns. The patterns centered around the categories of the things they were looking for. They centered around these topics (in no particular order):

  • Web pages
  • People (Faculty mainly, then staff)
  • Courses
  • Events
  • Buildings

Repurposing existing information

Google is great at searching full text documents especially when authority is important. But for our purposes we need a little more fine grained results specific to a few parameters. We were not at all interested in writing a search engine but felt that we could extract information in an effective way for our visitors. We know the structure of class numbers, building names and short names, faculty/staff usernames and phone numbers.

Lastly we were not happy with Google’s results for events. When visitors hear about an event and want to know more about it they search for it. Our university has a lot of events going on each day, 50+ typically and a lot of them a repeating, either each semester, year or at random dates. The way Google’s algorithm works it gives more prominence to pages that have more authority, to gain authority pages need to be linked to, visited and around for a while. Well the events the visitor are typically looking for occur in the future and have possibly not been linked to a lot thus older events will show up higher than newer events with the same title.

Breaking it apart

As you can see in the screen shot on the right we are now breaking apart the search page into organic results, matching buildings, people, classes and events. This brings this otherwise hidden information to the top where a visitor can get an overview of all the parts of the university that match their search. This not only gives the visitor more accurate results but also gives them additional information they may not have thought about. Opinions for students have been very well received most notably about the events being pulled in. It reduced frustration around older events showing up in the web results and increased their awareness of things happening on campus.

We are not excluding these events, classes, people and buildings from showing up in the natural search results because at times Google does a better job at filtering them and not all users notice the column on the right. Again this is a result of Google having ads on the right hand side of their results, they are training users to not look there for organic information.

Continuous improvement

This is just the first step into improving information retrieval for our visitors. We understand we will never have a navigation and architecture that will please everyone, but from insights into this we can improve the way visitors are actually using our site. We strive to build a user experience that not only gets out of the way but also enjoyable. We don’t have a long term goal for the site search but we know our next steps will be to integrate domain or site specific search right into this page with appropriate context on the right column. This will allow us to have one search results page for every site on campus that is well branded and scoped.

View the combined search page at: http://wayne.edu/search/

4 Replies to “A more useful homepage search”

  1. Hi Nick,

    How are you actually doing the search? Is the query going to google, plus searches of a building index, staff directory, etc?

    Cheers,

    Ross

    1. Ross,
      So what we are doing is using a single form field that is provided by Google and customizing the look of it. We are then attaching an action to the .submit() of the form where we take the search query and do an ajax call to our own local search which ties into the LDAP, campus map, course and events databases. While that is happening the regular Google search happens and the results are loaded below then when the rest of the data returns from our local searches is populates that right column. This effect does require javascript so if the user doesn’t have javascript on it just returns the Google results. It’s progressively enhancing the search the more functionality the user has. We will probably build in the right column for non-javascript users in the future, but are not sure when.

      1. Thanks Nick. I think its a nice solution. I’ll be curious to see if it has an effect on confidence in search results when you test it.

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