#7: Search for Signs of Intelligent Life *

By | October 24, 2006

Much like the library websites described by Brenda Battleson in her 2000 case study, “Usability testing of an academic library web site,” major newspaper websites are evolving into information gateways.

Large news websites feature deep collections of stories, archived material, photos, searchable databases and more. But like libraries, the exceedingly large amount of data can lead to “information overload.” Sorting through such a vast collection of ‘bits’ can overwhelm, “bewilder, confuse, and even discourage users,” Battleson wrote.

Good organization and “compartmentalization” are necessities. And web sites with huge catalogs of information need to offer a highly navigable structure that is both intuitive and obvious.

The fact is no two people surf the internet alike. Every human being has her own distinct thought processes to take her from POINT A to POINT B. I witness this all the time working at courant.com and ctnow.com. No matter how much time and careful thought my team of web producers puts into organizing and highlighting important items on the home pages, most users glaze over it and head directly to the “site search box.”

Maybe Internet users have been trained to do this because of search engines like Google and Yahoo. It just makes sense to them that “search” is a good place to start.

So websites would do well to make site search as blatantly obvious to visitors as possible. And websites would do even better to make sure the search utility functions really well, returning the kind of results users are seeking.

I encountered this issue at work recently. The Hartford Courant Food section recently agreed to start printing a web-only feature I created on ctnow.com, called “The Liquor Cabinet.”

“The Liquor Cabinet” is gallery of cocktails from bars and restaurants around Connecticut and is featured on multiple pages of ctnow.com, including the home page, the nightlife page and the dining page. However, the Courant’s food editor contacted me on recent afternoon and told me she couldn’t find it.

Why? Well, she went to ctnow.com and immediately typed “Liquor Cabinet” into the site search. Unfortunately, it returned NOTHING. Apparently, ctnow.com is structured in such a way that none of my existing links to “The Liquor Cabinet” were included in the search metrics.

Now, while I thought ctnow.com users would naturally go looking for a gallery of cocktails on the dining or nightlife page, the food editor thought site search would be the quickest way to find the feature.

Most of the time, human beings don’t choose the best option, argues Steve Krug, author of the book, “Don’t Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability.”

“We choose the first reasonable option,” Krug observed. “As soon as we find a link that seems like it might lead to what we’re looking for, there’s a very good chance that we’ll click it.”

I’ve since rectified that particular search problem on ctnow.com. But the experience has further proven to me that site search may be one of, if not THE most important function of a cavernous website.

According to Jakob Nielsen, whose Nielsen Norman Group in Fremont, Calif., has influenced tens of thousands of site designers, the number one mistake in web design is “bad search.”

Nielsen says, “Search is the user’s lifeline when navigation fails. Even though advanced search can sometimes help, simple search usually works best, and search should be presented as a simple box, since that’s what users are looking for.”

It all goes back to the core principle that websites should be designed with users in mind first.

Vincent Flanders, who runs an amusing site called “Web Pages That Suck” summed it up nicely in a post called “Biggest Web Design Mistakes of 2004.”

“Nobody cares about you or your site. Really. … Most people visit a web site to solve one or more of the following three problems.

  • They want/need information.
  • They want/need to make a purchase / donation.
  • They want/need to be entertained.
    Too many organizations believe that a web site is about opening a new marketing channel or getting donations or to promote a brand. No. It’s about solving your customers’ problems.”

  • A website can start solving customers’ problems with a search that is both obvious and dependable.


  • Krug, S. (2000). Don’t make me think. Indianapolis: New Riders, 1-39.
  • Battleson, B., Booth, A., & Weintrop, J. (2001). Usability testing of an academic library web site: a case study. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 27(3), 188-198.
  • Flanders, Vincent. Web Pages That Suck. [ html ]
  • Nielsen, Jakob. useit.com: Usable Information Technology. [html]

    * Title of this response paper is co-opted from Lily Tomlin’s 1992 one-woman show, “The Search for Signs of Inteligent Life in the Universe.”

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