Navigation versus search

Is good navigation important?

A client recently asked me: “Navigation, isn’t that a bit old hat? I mean, this is the time of Google. Doesn’t everybody just search?”

No, they don’t. Good navigation and good links are vital for the success of a website. A search feature is an added bonus, sure. But if you have one, it has to be as good as Google or even better.

Less than 5% uses the search feature

Google might be insanely popular but that doesn’t mean the search feature on your website is too.

On the contrary.

When we do visitor behaviour analysis (read: Google Analytics) we often see that the search feature is rarely used by more than 5% of a site’s total number of visitors. On our blogs the number of searchers is even lower: around 1,5%. On the website of a Flemish province we’re working for it’s just below 5%.

Things we know about search

During user tests we see the following happen time and time again:

  • Most people only use the search feature after they’ve tried the navigation or the content links. Search is seen as the last resort.
  • If people are looking for something very specific, like a product they know the name of, they’re be more inclined to search.
  • Programmers and engineers use the search feature more often than ‘normal people’.

What if more than 5% of your visitors uses the search feature?

If the number of visitors that use your search feature is higher than 5%, that might be an indication that all is not well on your website.

Check whether your navigation is clear to your visitors. Do they understand the words you’re using? Do your overview pages contain the right links?

It’s also worthwhile to check on which page people start searching. And to see what it is about that page that might cause them to do that.

These rules obviously don’t apply to job sites, real estate sites, etc. where people basically come to search.

5 reasons to encourage people to browse rather than search

  1. Most people aren’t very good at searching
    It’s quite shocking to see how bad some people are at formulating a good search query. Often they use words that are either too general, way too specific or just plain wrong.
  2. Different words
    People often use different words than the website uses. They type in ‘night school’ for example, when the site talks about ‘lifelong learning’. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it usually doesn’t deliver great results.
  3. Spelling errors are very common
    You wouldn’t believe the amount of ‘sandels’ and ‘sandles’ being offered on eBay when actually what these people are trying to sell are ‘sandals’.
  4. Most search features aren’t very good
    Most search features, especially the ones that come with a CMS, aren’t very good. The way of searching the data, ordering the results, accounting for spelling mistakes, … it’s all a bit depressing.
  5. People who browse see more and buy more
    People who use the search feature look at less other pages after they’ve found what they’re looking for than people who browse. On e-commerce sites the shopping carts of browsers are fuller than those of searchers.

    On the other hand, searchers often have a higher conversion rate than browsers. That’s pretty logical, given that people who use the search feature know what they want and are often looking for something specific. And so not an argument in favour of just pushing any and every visitor towards the search feature.

Which brings us to the interesting subject of hooking up your website’s search feature to your Google Analytics account. Because there’s loads of interesting information to be found there. But we’ll talk more about that later.

Meanwhile, you might want to check out these articles

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  • http://@eduardogimenes Eduardo Gimenes

    These two issues are distinct components of information architecture, navigation and search systems

    They should not be compared, they must be added to the project

  • Bas Zurburg

    Good points: Search is OK when the navigation is bad. I like point 5 especially: search is limited because visitors can only pull content (Or ask for content).

    In the same perspective: No one asked for iPhones, people didn’t search for it. They were pushed.

  • Lou Storiale

    I used to think the opposite – that no one searched. I conducted several usability studies and sat behind the targeted visitor during a few task-oriented questions. I anticipated them using the navigation menu and wouldn’t you know it, about 30% of them went straight to the internal search box.

    WoW! How’s that for getting out of your own head. We quickly took care of some of the much needed search fixes.

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  • Regine Lambrecht

    Just saw the following statistics of 30% using the search engine :

  • Els Aerts

    @Regine Lambrecht: I’m sure more than 5% of visitors on eBay use the search feature too. The percentage of visitos who use the search feature depends on the nature of the website, as stated in the article.

    I’d advise everyone to do as Lou did: check your statistics to find out how many people search on your site and take it from there.

    Maybe your search needs improving. Maybe your navigation does. Maybe they both do.

  • Karl Gilis


    Gerry McGovern’s number is in a totally different context. I quote: “Recently, we did some extensive task testing with a technical audience. 70 percent started the task by clicking on a link, 30 percent used search.”

    1. A technical audience
    As we said in our article, those people use search more often than ‘normal people’.

    2. Task testing
    This is a kind of user testing. That’s not at all comparable with the average of all users based on log files.
    Among those will also be returning visitors, people coming from Google etc. People that use search less frequently than fresh visitors landing on the homepage, where with a user test the first task almost always starts.