How many people use search over navigation?

Max Koh

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Hi UX Agony Aunt,

Do you know how many people use search as a first resort as opposed to using navigation? (Kind of like the people that ask a store clerk where something is vs. trying to find it using the aisle signs)

John in Detroit

Hi John,

Good question and I love your example! There’s a big myth in the UX world that implementing a search engine function into your site or application will solve all your navigation problems. However, it’s simply not true! Search engines are complicated things and many people can often use them incorrectly, or at least not to their full potential. Adding one to your site and forcing people to use it is not going to fix your navigational problems if your information structure is a catastrophic mess. Instead, it’s only going to make visitors to your site even more frustrated!

On the other hand, some UXers think that search engine features are completely unnecessary when you have a good navigational structure. Again, not true. Many sites and applications benefit from having both an easy-to-use search function and great navigational structure.

It’s hard to give you an exact figure for how many people use search as a first resort, but I can at least provide you with some context and a ballpark.

Search versus navigation: which is the winner?

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We live in a time that’s heavily dominated by search. By just looking at some of the many Google algorithm updates from the past few years, you can see that people want their information to be easily accessible and extremely findable. Hummingbird’s full-question search feature alone just goes to show that people are relying more on Googling and searching answers to find them. It’s also relatively uncommon nowadays to find a site without a search function.

When you’re trying to figure out whether search or navigation is the winner, consider some of the following:

  • The nature of the site. For example, an ecommerce site that sells CDs might see more people searching for specific titles, rather than browse for them. On the other hand, a site for a company that offers services (like accounting) might see more navigation than search.
  • The size of the site. If your site only has 10 pages, does there even need to be a search engine function? If it’s 1,000 pages, is there already a search engine enabled?
  • The kind of search engine going to be used/already used. Will the engine have autocomplete enabled? Is it a full text search engine?

With so many variables involved, you can see why it’s hard to give a concrete number.

Having said that, research in an article from Kissmetrics showed that over half of 100 survey respondents preferred to use on-page navigation rather than search. In addition, 47% of respondents said they prefer to filter down to specific product details rather than use the search function on the product page itself.

It’s not just Kissmetrics who found many users were in favor of navigation rather than search.

A research paper from Michael Katz and Michael Byrne titled “Effects of scent and breadth on use of site-specific search on e-commerce websites” uncovered similar results.

“Given broad, high-scent menus, participants searched less than 10% of the time, but they searched almost 40% of the time when faced with narrow, low-scent menus; this is a practically-significant effect,” the paper states.

The paper goes on to identify that the rate search is used on a website is influenced by many things, but it’s especially affected by the layout of the home page and the site’s information structure.

“Our results suggest that no single factor determines whether users search or browse, but rather that multiple factors influence the decision.”

A study from User Interface Engineering's Founder Jared Spool also delved into the topic of search versus navigation. His study involved 30 users performing over 100 different shopping tasks, all for different items over three to six websites per person. The results were extremely interesting, as they showed there was not a single participant involved who always used search as their first action when looking for product information.

Participants still used search, and interestingly, it seems that some of the sites that were used were very search dominant.

“Then, when we looked at the individual sites, we saw that for 21% of the sites, every single user who visited only used search,” Spool noted in his study.

“We find it fascinating that on 53% of the sites we tested, each visitor stuck with a single location strategy — the same strategy employed by all the other visitors to that site. This implies that there is something inherent in the site’s design that causes users to choose the search engine or the links, not a hard-and-fast preference of the user.”

Improving your navigation

If you’ve noticed that your overall bounce rates are extremely high and your internal search engine is getting a lot of use, it’s likely you have some navigation issues. In order to get this back on track you need to have a look at both your navigation design and your information architecture. Your IA informs your navigation design, so in order to solve your navigation issues, you should start by looking at your IA.

Treejack is an easy-to-use tree testing tool to help you identify some of the issues with your existing IA. After you’ve conducted your tests, your results will help you create a new IA. Remember, this is a cyclic process; you need to test, redesign, test and repeat for best results.

From there, you can begin working on the navigation of your site. This article from Kissmetrics contains a number of common website navigation mistakes to avoid; these are handy tips to keep in mind when you’re reviewing your own UI and IA.

Well, I hope that clears up your question. Remember, people should never have to rely on one or the other — make sure both are functioning at their best!

Further reading:

Who is UX Agony Aunt? Can she help me?!

She certainly can! Head on over to her place and find out what she can help you with, and how to submit your question.

Max Koh
  • Max Koh
  • Max is Optimal Workshop's content marketing manager, resident cat whisperer and Samoyed enthusiast. Connect with her on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/marishakoh

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