Scoped Search Makes Information Harder to Find

by on 07/04/11 at 3:17 pm

Search is an essential feature for websites to have. Without it, users would have to rely on the navigation to find what they want. With it, users can find specific information easier. But if your site is using a scoped search, you’re making it harder for users.

Scoped Search vs. Global Search

A scoped search allows users to search within a given section of a site. Users use a dropdown box to select which section they want to search through. This is different from a global search where the user enters their search term to search the entire site globally to find the information they need.

Don’t give users depth without breadth.

A global search gives users more power in their search. It increases the chance they’ll find the information they’re looking for and more. Since a global search searches the entire site, users won’t just get search results from one section, they’ll get results from multiple sections. This allows users to not only find the information they want, but discover other relevant information in other sections of the site that they otherwise wouldn’t have found in a scoped search. With a global search, users not only get the depth of the search, but the breadth of it as well. It gives users the certainty that the search engine isn’t disregarding or hiding relevant information in other parts of the site.

A scoped search limits the scope of information the user sees. It kills the discovery aspect of the search experience because the user can only search one area of the site at a time. Thus, relevant information that could lurk in other areas of the site won’t get discovered unless the user opts to search those areas. This can cause users to miss out on potentially useful information. It makes user uncertain whether there’s more information in other sections of the site that they didn’t get to see. Users to have to search each section at a time to find out what they’re missing. The search should sweep the entire site for all relevant information, so that the user gets thorough and conclusive search results.

Don’t make users think, just give them what they want.

Users need to have a basic understanding of the website’s structure and organization to do a scoped search. If they don’t, users could select the wrong section of the site to search in. They can especially have trouble selecting a section if some of the sections seem like they can overlap.

For example, Craigslist uses a scoped search. A user who is not familiar with the Craigslist sections would have trouble deciding whether they should search in Jobs, Gigs, Services or Resumes when looking for a job. They all seem like they could overlap with each other. Jobs is the only section that stands out as the best place to search. However, the other sections could also hold potential jobs of interest. If the user wants to search all the potential areas at once, they can’t. With a scoped search, the user has to search each section individually. With a global search, users don’t have to spend time figuring out which section of the site the information they’re looking for is in. They can search the site and narrow down the search results from there. This approach is a lot faster and easier than a scoped search because the user doesn’t need to get familiar with the site structure and figure anything out.

Combining a global search and a scoped search.

If you’re going to offer your users a scoped search, you should set the default scope to all sections of the site. This makes it easy for users to use the global search, which most will prefer. However, those who want to use a scoped search can still do that. Scoped searches are much like an advanced search. They’re best suited for users who know exactly what they want and where to get it. The advantage of the scoped search is that you don’t see the results for other sections of the site. This is useful for the expert user, who understands how the different site sections work. For everyone else, a global search with scoped search results work best.

Global Search + Scoped Search Results Work Best

Users shouldn’t have to figure out a site’s structure to do a search. They shouldn’t have to think about which section of the site holds their information. It’s clear that a scoped search wastes the user’s time and energy. The best approach is a global search with a scoped search results page. It gives users more flexibility and control over their search results. They can search the entire site at once and target sections for the information they want.

The hardest part to get right is the search results page. If you don’t present the search results in an organized way, you could overwhelm users with too much information. Scoped search results should show users all relevant results for each site section. It should allow users to choose which section they want to see more of. When the user chooses a section, it should then display all the search results in that section to the user.

An example of this is iTunes. They use a global search with scoped search results. The user starts their search globally and gets relevant results by section. From there, the user chooses the section that best fits what they’re looking for. Once its chosen, the user sees an archive of content for that section. This approach is a lot more natural and intuitive for users.

Designers shouldn’t forget why searches exist in the first place. They’re there to make the user’s life simpler. They’re there for users who don’t want to navigate the site through the navigation. They’re there for users who want to get to the information they’re looking for fast. Scoped and advanced searches are useful, but they should never take the place of the global search.


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Author and editor-in-chief of UX Movement. Loves great web experiences and fights for the user.

3 Responses to “Scoped Search Makes Information Harder to Find”

  1. Jacob Creech

    Jul 5th, 2011

    This is one of my biggest pet peeves! Thanks very much for putting it into words.

  2. Jackie Smith

    Jul 5th, 2011

    Thanks for another great post.

    This and many UX Movement posts would be of fantastic value if you could integrate some figures, some tested learning, into the post. E.g. a study/report or individual case study on drop out rates as a result of unsatisfactory search results etc.

  3. Greg

    Jul 28th, 2011

    I personally prefer to just supply a simple search box and then segregate the results into categories if possible.
    I think it’s the logic and mentality behind what searching actually means to the user.
    User: “I’m looking for this, god knows where it is just find it for me!”
    System: “OK that appears here, here, here and here.”

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