The secret of a successful search

September 4, 2014

It was recently estimated in the US that Google receives 182 million unique views a month, 9 million hits above its closest competitor Yahoo!, And 20 million views ahead of bronze medallist, bing*. So why is Google the world’s most popular search engine? Firstly, it gets us the results they want. Secondly, as we all know, it is extremely easy to use. On the Google homepage the search box is smack bang in the middle of the page while Yahoo! has squashed it well out the way up the top and thrown the kitchen sink at the homepage.

We recently undertook some usability testing for an estate agent. An important feature on all estate agent sites is the property search. When we started exploring this site and the broader estate agent sphere, we came up with an idea, in line with the above Google approach, that simple but effective searching is the best.

Testers were able to use the property search box on the test site, but not without difficulty. They were only offered a ‘Search’ button once location price and number of bedrooms had been entered. To complicate things further, three different ‘Search’ options appeared:

winkworth

We asked testers to conduct the same property search on a number of comparison sites. We trawled through estate agent sites to find one simple enough to test our hypothesis; not an easy task.

The simplest option we found at the time was the below example from Humberts (blue). On this site, no testers questioned the need for additional filters at this stage of the refinement process.

humberts chestertons

While researching this blog, we also came across the above example from Chestertons (purple), which we love! The search is quick and easy, the search results page clear and the filters effective and relevant. Users are only one click away from what they want to see – properties.

Such simplicity is particularly important in today’s time poor society, where a simple search allows users to quickly and easily access a large range of search results.
By forcing users to refine their search early on, sites are making two assumptions: firstly that users know what they want and secondly that they understand how to use the filters.

The former, is rarely true, as discussed more generally in a previous blog and particularly true in this scenario. While users may approach an estate agent with a budget and location in mind, buying a property is an emotional decision as well as a practical one. Often their final purchase will not reflect their initial criteria. By delaying result refinement until after the initial search, it allows users to get hold of options that may have otherwise filtered out.

The latter assumption was nicely rubbished by one particularly complicated search on Keatons, a North London based estate agent. The below map and slider combination caused most testers to give up before they’d even begun – never a good start.

keatons

On top of that, searching is notoriously difficult for testers. Navigating a site using links is easy when the links give off good scent that match up with a user’s mental model. Searching, on the other hand, requires search terms, which, in turn, requires thinking; something we don’t like to do on websites. Once again we are back to Steve Krug’s usability concept of ‘don’t make me think’.

So when designing a search, certainly on estate agent sites and potentially more broadly, we believe a simple interface fronting an effective search is your best bet.

  • Remove the practical obstacle of how to use the site, by adopting Google-esque simplicity
  • Minimise upfront refinement as, more often than not, users don’t know what they want
  • Avoid making users think by idiot-proofing search requirements

*http://www.listofsearchengines.org/