By Dean Burney
Oct 24, 2011

Searching for a Better Search? Part Two.

In part one of this three-part post about site search usability and best practices, I covered the homepage search box.  Today I will cover search results display.

When it comes to displaying your search results there are a number of decisions to make including, sorting, categorization, pagination, and previews – the goal is to make the results relevant, scannable, and enticing.


There are few different ways to sort search results, including alphabetical, by date added, or popularity.  But the most valuable to the searcher is something called relevance.  What is relevance exactly?  It is actually a combination of several of the methods I just mentioned. Relevance is a calculation of a search result’s relative importance based on the user’s search terms, by taking into account the following factors:

  1. How accurate and frequently do the search terms appear in the searched asset (i.e. web page, blog post, article, or document)
  2. The popularity of the asset (more popular assets are more relevant)
  3. The last modified date of the asset (recently modified assets are more relevant)
  4. The version of the asset (more recent versions of the asset are more relevant)

Relevance should be the default order of your search results, but allowing users to toggle the results to sort by other means such as date-added or alphabetical is a popular and useful feature you might want to include.


You should make the effort to categorize your results set to help the user find the type of asset they are looking for.  For example, Google categorizes its results by everything, images, video, news, etc.   Think about what types of categories make sense to your users and provide a means for distinguishing or compartmentalizing the types of results.  For instance, you may want to introduce a bank of tabs on your result set to categorize the results – see below.  Or you can simply use a different graphic treatment to distinguish one type of result from another and let a user filter by result type (more on search filtering in part 3, coming soon).  There is no one set answer here, but all good search interfaces have taken categorization into account.





Studies have shown that very few users will explore any further than page three of a search result set, but nevertheless you need to provide your users the ability to easily page through results.  There are number of different ways to handle pagination, but in this case, I tend to favor a method that mimics Google in this case, as familiarity almost always improves usability.  

Here are a few examples of usable, practical pagination components:





Previews refer the information that accompanies a result match that helps the user decide whether to click on and explore that particular result.  In the case of Google, the preview text is taken from the web pages meta description, but in the case of your website, it can include the first few sentences of the text on the page, or a snippet of surrounding text that contains the search terms. 

In some cases, however, a few small lines of text may not be enough.  For example, for the American Chemical Society’s publications site, which is used by scientists and students to research highly technical journal articles and book chapters, we incorporated an image viewer within each result set to give users a preview of the technical diagrams and drawings they would find if they clicked the result.




Hopefully these examples will give you some ideas as you design your search interface.  Keep in mind, the most important thing is to understand the needs of your users.  Consider getting a small focus group of potential users together to discuss their search habits and preferences.  You’d be surprised how user preferences can vary widely from site to site.  If you can tailor your search functionality to their specific needs, while keeping it simple and friendly, you’ll have a huge step on your competition.

Coming soon, search result filtering


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