The Myths and Perils in the Pursuit of Advanced Search Options

One question that I’ve heard a lot over the years working in the search space is: “How can I provide advanced search options for users, such as exposing boolean operators?”

My answer: don’t waste your time with it (and especially don’t do it in the first iteration of your search application).

Many search usability studies confirm that most users have no idea how to use advanced search, and instead rely only on simple keyword searches to try and find what they want. As Jakob Nielsen brilliantly put it in his article on “Converting Search into Navigation”:

In study after study, we see the same thing: most users reach for search, but they don’t know how to use it.

Given this fact, my recommendation for customers is always to start simple, with a search interface that lets users enter their keywords to find what they are looking for. Then, after collecting usage log for a few weeks/months, you can look for query patterns that could be used to trigger more advanced search functionality, such as the Costco example in Nielsen’s article about redirecting the user to a category page instead of a search results page for certain queries where you know (from inspecting usage logs) that most users just want to get the category page.

This way you can gradually improve the performance of your search application, by “listening” to the search behaviors of your users and adjusting your search application accordingly.

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