Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Searching & tags: standard information from sites / apps, please!

Lots of web sites or applications have search boxes or will let users add tags to things (see my intro on Technorati tags for tags on blogs).

It's just basic usability, but I wish all sites and software would standardise their search and tagging features, or at least standardize on always explaining certain key info about their particular flavour of search or tagging, in order to make it easier for users to search and tag. (Rather like I wish that sites would state in advance what they will or won't accept when choosing passwords and usernames, e.g. what's their required minimum number of characters, must there always be one letter and one number etc, so that users don't waste time trying something of the wrong length etc which won't work.)


I don't think I'm asking for much, but whenever a site or service, whether online or offline, offers the ability to search, I wish they'd always:
  1. Have a search box visible on every page, and in several places on the same page - and not make you click on a link to bring up a search box, like the Office of Fair Trading do on many of their pages (see top right of screenshot, which I've outlined in red). It wastes time.

  2. If their search box is already filled in with words like "Type your search term here", which are meant to help beginners, please make those words overwriteable - so that if the user tabs to or clicks in the search box, those words are automatically highlighted and get deleted when the user types in their own search term. It's annoying and time wasting to have to backspace etc to delete the "guidance text" first, before I can search on my own phrase.

  3. Give an indication - 1 sentence is all I want, clearly visible without having to click through to their Help or Support - of:

    1. whether a search will find whole word matches only (like Google searches - save for the twist of their "synonyms" function where they automatically find similar, but again only whole, words), or whether it matches the series or string of characters typed in (so that "cord" will find "cord", "discord", "recorder", "recording" etc), and

    2. whether if you enter 2 or more words it will find occurrences of both or all of those words only by default (an "and" search), or whether it looks for "either/or" occurrences of those words by default (an "or" search); and how to make sure it's an "and" search or a phrase search (where I want those words only exactly in the order entered; quote marks around the phrase are common, but by no means universal)

  4. Have a decent search engine in the first place! Many websites have awful internal searching or don't provide a search facility at all, so I often use Google's "site:" search for searching just within a particular site, but using Google's search engine rather than their internal built-in one - or of course if they don't provide internal searching. For some sites you can even search within the site from Google's search results page.

    I don't have any connection with Google apart from being a fan of most of their services (and recently becoming a Feedburner Community Expert), but I have to say that so many sites could make life much easier for their users / customers (improve customer experience, as the jargon goes) if only they would introduce something like the Google Search Appliance, Google Mini or Google Custom Search Business Edition (now renamed Google Site Search). Interestingly, recently Google Enterprise have been heavily promoting the use of Google's search engine by businesses in-house and on their customer-facing websites or blogs, including offering a hosted site search solution, offering webinars, videos and analytics, and trumpeting several companies which use their service, and it can't be worse than not having a search engine at all.


Many sites (like blip, Slideshare) spell out what tags are in their "help", and that's good, but that's still not enough. I wish they'd always clearly tell us users:
  1. whether tags on their site have to be single word only with no space between them, or whether multiple word tags are allowed (e.g. is "data protection" OK, or must we use "dataprotection"?)

  2. what separator to use between tags is if you want to tag the same item with more than one tag - is it a space, is it a comma, what is it??!

Otherwise, you have to check out existing tags on other items or do trial and error trying to figure it out and getting your tags rejected until you hit on the "right" combo, the combo accepted by that particular site. Very irritating.

And they all seem to be different. Bah.

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