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Tabbed search, single search or no search?
About a month or so ago we ran a poll on the homepage of the library website.  The poll was placed in the top centre of the webpage in a very prominent position and had a really strong reponse rate, over 700 I think.  Included in the poll was an ‘other’ option with a box to describe your alternative suggestion.   When we analysed the poll results we were really surprised to find that quite a few respondents treated this box as a search box and had typed in some search terms.

So I was interested to see a comment ‘… they saw a search box and started searching’ in a timely article in the Journal of Academic Librarianship by Troy Swanson and Jeremy Green ‘Why we are not Google: Lessons from a Library Web site Usability Study’  The usability testing they carried out at Moraine Valley Community College Library strongly suggested that neither a single search box nor a tabbed search was as usable as a gateway approach. 

Mireia Leg’s blogpost ‘Is a single search box the answer to our problems?’ on the Open University of Catalonia’s LibTechNotes site says that

Thus, should we offer alternative ways to access the information, so that users can choose the most suitable way, depending on their needs, expectations and expertise? Options or tools that let them carry out specialist searches and use advanced functions that ensure pertinent, quality results.

The latter is not enough on its own and most users want simplicity. 

So where does that leave us?
There’s been a move towards library search that is much more ‘Google-like’ across the past few years and the new generation of  discovery solutions (Summon, EDS, Primo Central etc) are a good example, with single search boxes as the default.  In part this has been a reaction to users who are saying that library search is too complex.  But in amongst the comments from users who like the single search box approach we are now starting to see comments from users saying that they are seeing too many results and aren’t able to refine the results sufficiently, or that the new discovery search system doesn’t include all the content that they used to get through the old federated search.

Which makes me start to wonder if a single search box can cope with the different types of user and the different questions that they are asking.  Whether our systems are smart enough to be able to understand the context of the enquiry, whether we can design results pages so users can clearly see what options they have and whether we can connect users to the resource they want, in the way they want, as quickly and easily as possible.  And I suspect that single search boxes aren’t quite able to do that yet.  I also think that we’ve some way to go to get all our licensed content into the discovery systems.

I’ve been trying to find the time to do a bit more work on the library search terms I was looking at earlier So here a bit later than I hoped are a few more thoughts based on what search terms people have been using.  The data comes from search terms used by people searching via the tabbed search box on the library website homepage, so they have the option to search the library catalogue, library website, and our e-resources system, Ebsco Discovery Solution.  I’ve also looked at an equivalent set of search terms from the predecessor of EDS, 360 Search.

Don’t put text in the search box
Whenever we’ve put ‘helpful’ text into the search box then those words become the most searched for term, by a considerable margin.  So ‘Search the Library Catalogue’ is ten times more likely to be submitted as a search term than the next highest term.  ‘Search One-Stop’ is five times more likely.  That implies users have just been clicking on the Search button.  One of the explanations that has been suggested is that it offers them a quick way to get to the underlying search system.

Wordle of search terms used to search library systemsWhich slightly begs that question that you might just as well give users a link to the search system rather than a search box.

At the moment we’re testing stopping users being able to click search until they’ve entered some search terms and not putting any text in the box to gauge user reactions.

Cross-over of terms between different search tabs
I’ve done some more work on looking at the top 100 search terms to compare what users type into the catalogue, website, federated search and discovery search boxes.  When I looked at the top 20 then approximately 40% of the search terms were identical across the search platforms.

Unsurprisingly that changes when you look at the top 100.  Only about 22% of the search terms are the same across all the search boxes, with 45% used in at least three search boxes.  The graph below refers.Graph of search word percentages

There are a couple of figures that seem to stand out.  41% of website search terms have only been used in the website search, and that’s understandable.  But at the opposite extreme only 16% of search terms used in the catalogue search are unique to the catalogue.  That may be a peculiarity of a distance learning institution that there’s less unique print content maybe.

As well as the search terms we’ve also got the number of times each of the terms have been used.  This gives a slightly different picture

Graph of numbers of similar searchesIn terms of quantities of searches carried out then an average of 40% are common to all search boxes.  That matches the 40% of the top 20 terms that are common to all search boxes.

There is quite a big drop off after the top 10 searches in terms of numbers of searches.  The top 10 are in the 100s and there’s quite a long tail.  So because a high proportion of the top 20 results are used across all search tabs then when you add up the total search numbers it pushes the percentage up much higher than when you just count the search words.

Again the catalogue has fewest unique searches, but federated and discovery search all have more unique searches than the website, which is a little curious.  I’d have expected there to be considerable common ground between federated and discovery search and for them to have many similar terms.  That bears some further investigation.

Direct comparisons of the different types of search
I’ve included graphs below of each of the four search types comparing the percentages of search words with search numbers.   Catalogue searchIn each case the graph looks at the list of search terms seen by that search system and then compares them with the other search terms to show whether they are common to 1, 2, 3, or 4 search lists.

Discovery search

Federated search

Website search

Final thoughts
Using the numbers of times the search terms are used is to my mind more representative of what users are searching for.  That gives a pattern that says that more than half of the time users are using the same terms in each search box.  Although you’d expect that cross-over between federated and discovery search, and to maybe a lesser extent, the catalogue, you wouldn’t expect it with the library website as it contains mostly help and support materials or information about services.

That seems to me to imply that:

  1. Users aren’t all that clear what the different tabs are searching.  Website in particular is an ambiguous term.  You couldn’t really argue with a user that insisted that they are all websites anyway.
  2. There’s a lot of common terms that could equally (and legitimately) be used against most (if not all) of the search tabs and users might well expect (and want) useful results
  3. That if users are going to type the same search term into every box then it would save their time (isn’t that one of Ranganathan’s laws?) just to let them type it once.

It’s been an interesting exercise and some useful evidence to compare alongside our search evaluation and focus group work to feed into our website redesign project.

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May 2011

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