Understanding How Users Search

Assuming you’ve decided to implement a searching system for your web site, it’s important to understand how users really search before designing it. We’ll try to condense decades of research and experience generated by the field of information retrieval into the next few paragraphs. But it really boils down to this point: searching systems can and should vary as much as browsing systems or any other components of web sites do, because all users aren’t alike, and information retrieval is much harder than most people realize.

Users Have Different Kinds of Information Needs

Information scientists and librarians have been studying users’ information finding habits for decades. Until recently, these studies usually pertained to traditional information systems, such as how to ask a library patron the right questions to learn their information needs, or how to make it easier to search for information in online library card catalogs or other databases.

Many studies indicated that users of information systems aren’t members of a single-minded monolithic audience who want the same kinds of information delivered in the same ways. Some want just a little information, while others want detailed assessments of everything there is to know about a topic. Some want only the most accurate, highest quality information, while others don’t care much about the reliability of the source. Some will wait for the results, while others need the information yesterday. Some are ...

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