Search Box vs. Navigation

One question that I get asked quite a bit by attendees are my clients that we consult with is if we have a limited budget to make improvements to our site, should we invest it in improving our internal search, giving people better search results, or should we invest in improving our information architecture and the visible navigation that’s available to users on the page? How do you know? How do you decide which one deserves your research dollars?

Well, to answer that question, let’s first back up. What is it that makes someone use search versus navigation? People are likely to use search if they know that your site searches a whole universe. So something like Google or YouTube or Amazon, people are generally pretty confident that if they take the time to type in a search query, they’re going to get results that get them closer to their goal. Now, many sites don’t have that luxury. Not all users are aware of the whole scope of our offerings. Wouldn’t that be nice? So instead, users will look to navigation to help learn about this Web site’s offerings. What is it that we offer? What can we provide in terms of services or help or support? So for that reason, for many cases, your navigation is going to be critical. Now, one other reason why it’s often really useful to invest in better navigation and categories is because search requires a lot of effort.

People have to actually take the time to recall a keyword that’s going to help them. They have to think about what’s the best way that the site is going to know what I want. Now, let me type that in. And speaking of typing, typing can be pretty effortful, especially if it’s on a touch screen like a mobile device or a tablet. So there’s a high burden to search and there’s a high risk that when a user does a search that they’re going to get no results. So for that reason, you really want to make sure that your navigation categories help do that work, of providing the user with a sense of what’s in the information space. They’re more likely to be able to discover information that they didn’t know was there, and they’ll more likely to be able to find information that they came looking for. On the other hand, you might decide to invest in search if you’re confident that your users expect search to be the primary way to navigate on your site. And if you’re confident that your users know the whole range of your product offerings. But for the vast majority of cases, the short answer is you’re going to have to invest in both.

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