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Why web site search users say there are too many results

I have seen the surveys. I have sat through the usability testing. And it comes up every time. Searchers on your company’s Web sites say that there are “too many results.” They did their search and they saw “1,000 found” or “Results 1-10 of 46,000” and they feel overwhelmed. Why does this happen? And what are they really trying to tell you when they say there are too many results?

I remember the first time that the usability folks told me that customers wanted fewer results from the site search engine. The customers told us that is what they wanted, so we should do that, right?

“That’s ridiculous,” I chortled. “Why is Google so successful when it brings back millions of results for the same query?” And then I went to the usability tests. And I heard it again and again until I had to ask myself why is Google successful when this is what searchers are saying about your Web site search?

Why indeed? I think Google’s success is based on having the right answer at the top. (Duh!) At least most of the time, they do. And your site search often does not. Jared Spool found that site search actually answers the searchers’ question just 34% of the time. So it’s fair to say that there is a problem here, even if it isn’t the one that users are identifying.
Eye tracking studies show that the first place people look when a search results screen is displayed is the top left of the page, working their way down to the #1 result and scanning down the list from there. No studies show that people’s eyes are attracted to the number of results. So, you can safely conclude that people have already looked at the search results before they look at the number of results at the top right of the screen.

The only reason that they are looking at the number of results is that the results listed did not seem interesting enough to draw their click. So when users complain that there are too many results, what that probably means is that the top results were no good.

Sometimes, the answer to the searcher’s question is on your site, but was not anywhere listed in the results. In that case, the problem is that the search engine did not find the right pages, possibly because the content on the page was not well-written to match the searcher’s words, or because the pages were not even placed in the search engine’s index.

At other times, the answer to the searcher’s question is not on your site at all. You might be surprised how frequently the answer to the searcher’s question is not on any page. When that happens, you need to add the answers to your site.

Most frequently, the answer is on your site, and it is returned by the search engine, but it is ranked so far down in the list that the searcher does not see it. In that case, the search engine’s ranking algorithm may need to be modified, or the answer page may need to be optimized so that its content more closely matches the searcher’s question.

Regardless of the cause of the problem, when searchers say your site search has too many results, you do have a problem. The usability people are wrong if they insist that the number of results be reduced, but the technical folks are also wrong if they want to ignore what the users said because “Google has even more results and the users like Google.” Just because users don’t know how to express the problem doesn’t mean there is no problem. They are trying to tell you that the wrong results are at the top of your search results page and you need to respond.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is a Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also served as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He was a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research and is now a Senior Fellow of The Conference Board. A Certified Speaking Professional, Mike regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide.

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