Why Search Engines Fail

Two major research studies stress-tested web site search engines around the world, analyzing search failures and offering important insights for dramatically improving search usability.

The first study, conducted by Infonic on behalf of site search tool vendor Albert, conducted more than 800 searches across 100 web sites in five countries. The results painted a bleak picture of the quality of web site search.

Key findings from the study:

- 74% of test searches were unsuccessful.
- Sites were best at handling multiple word queries, though worst at coping with ordinary language queries.
- E-Commerce sites offered the worst relevance among corporate, government and media sites, although:
- Public sector sites were worst at overall search usability.

The most significant conclusion from the study was that most sites force users to interact with the search tool in an unintuitive, precise way -- in other words, users can only search successfully if they already know the answer to the question they are asking!

The second study was performed by Mondosoft, a search engine company based in Denmark, that analyzed its own customers' search patterns. The scope of this project was huge: More than 57 million queries across a wide range of both North American and European customers, including both broad public portals and narrow verticals. The findings are both significant and well-supported by the amount of data gathered.

Unlike the Infonic study, Mondosoft found that about 60% of all searches were successful, but the results included a range from 30% to 90% among different sites. Other key findings:

- The average search session lasted 1:50 minutes, ranging from 48 seconds to four and a half minutes.
- Only 1 in 20 visitors will scroll to the second page of search results.
- 22% of searches produce no results.
- 52% of all queries are single word; only 12% are three or more words.
- There is no significant difference in user behavior in North American or European web sites.

What can be learned from these studies? Mondosoft offers a number of insights to help webmasters and site architects improve search usability. In many cases, these suggestions apply equally well to enhancing site search and to optimizing content for web search engines.

- Identify and prepare "canned" results for the top 100 queries. More than 75% of all information requests can be satisfied with results addressing these popular keywords. Even sites without a search tool should offer these pages so they can be found in general web search results.

- Make sure there are no search failures -- fill "content holes" with pages that answer unanswered queries.

- Use good, descriptive titles, and add synonyms, both in meta tags and the body of a page (but make sure the terms appear in both).

- Monitor user behavior to discover related searches. Queries often occur in sets, with users attempting to refine queries that initially produce poor results. These are great clues for improving search usability.

These two studies have confirmed what most of us have known all along -- search isn't always effective.

But just as there are techniques for improving overall web site usability, there are also ways to improve search usability. And if you want users to find your content, either via your own site search or a general-purpose engine like Google or Lycos, it behooves you to pay as much attention to search usability as you do to popular search engine optimization techniques, many of which are nothing but misunderstood lore, anyway.

Note: White papers describing these studies have been released privately, and are not available on the web. Contact the companies directly for more information.



What Tools Make Site Search More Effective?
This IDC research bulletin examines the key elements of successful site search, using Mondosoft's search tools to illustrate key concepts and practices.

Why Good Sites Lack Search Engines
SearchDay, August 22, 2002
A new survey attempts to explain the inexplicable: why some perfectly good web sites fail to provide a search engine to improve user navigation.

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About the author

Chris Sherman is a frequent contributor to several information industry journals. He's written several books, including The McGraw-Hill CD ROM Handbook and The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See, co-authored with Gary Price. Chris has written about search and search engines since 1994, when he developed online searching tutorials for several clients. From 1998 to 2001, he was About.com's Web Search Guide.