Site Searches, Indexes, and Site Maps
Translations of this article is available in:
A good site search enables a person to bypass the extraneous structure and content of a site and go directly to the desired content. The site search feature itself should be easy to find and simple to operate. An advanced search form could be provided as an extra feature, but it should not be the default option.
The site search feature does not necessarily have to appear on every page, but at the very least it should appear on the home page, without forcing users to click on a link to a search page. In many cases it makes sense to provide direct access to the search feature on internal pages as well. The search feature should have a character width of about 25 to 35 characters, so that users can type and edit their queries without too much difficulty.
Search results should be presented as simply and clearly as possible. Advertisements can be one possible source of confusion. Even though Web savvy users can easily tell the difference between regular search results and advertisements (sponsored links) at the top of search results, less-experienced users might not know the difference. People with cognitive disabilities may also be unable to distinguish regular search results from text advertisements.
Site Maps or Indexes
There are three main types of site maps or indexes:
Alphabetical site indexes
Alphabetical site indexes list all of the important areas of content on a site in alphabetical order, much like the index at the back of a book. This may be unnecessary for very small sites, and may be impractical for very large sites, because these lists can become too lengthy to use effectively, but it is also one of the most useful ways for a user to find information on a site.
Well-designed alphabetical site indexes include synonyms of words and concepts that users may want to search for. For example, in a site about classical composers, alphabetical site indexes should account for the fact that users may try to find out information about the composer Claude Debussy by looking under the first name, last name, or even terms such as "French composers," "impressionistic music," or even the names of his compositions such as Claire de Lune or Reverie. The example below cross-references terminology about Web technologies.
The more comprehensive the alphabetical index, the more useful it is, as long as it does not become unwieldy. Developers may need to create multiple pages for long indexes, perhaps with a page for each letter of the alphabet.
Structural (topical) site indexes
A structural site map is a list of links to the contents of a Web site, organized by topic. Normally, structural site maps mirror the site's organization. For example, if a site has 3 main "tabs," or category links at the top of each page, these 3 categories could serve as the method for organizing the content of the structural site map. Take a look at some site maps of a few familiar Web sites. In the first example, the site map is a close representation of the main site structure as represented by the navigation features at the top of the page template, as the red arrows show.
In the next example, the site map takes advantage of a color coding system to group the items into four columns.
Graphical site maps
Although less common—and perhaps less useful—graphical site maps are one type of alternative to the more common text-based versions. These graphics often look similar to the organizational charts often used by businesses to delineate the hierarchical relationships between supervisors and the people whom they supervise. Below is a screenshot of a graphical structural site map of a fictional company:
The above example is probably overly simplistic, but the idea would be the same for more complex sites. However, one problem with graphical site maps for complex sites is that they would need large structural maps—perhaps larger than could be easily understood.
There are many ways of representing a site's organization graphically. Photos or graphics could be used in the headings to group and illustrate concepts. Circles or boxes could be drawn around related pages. A furniture store could use a floor plan of a house to organize the names or photos of different types of furniture. All of the links to kitchen items could literally be placed in the diagram's kitchen. Items for the family room could be listed in the diagram's family room, and so on. This type of concept can be quite powerful when used carefully and when tested for usability. The creativity involved in thinking up ideas such as this can easily backfire though, creating a confusing mess. Be creative, but test solutions to ensure they work.
Graphical site maps are probably unnecessary if the visual design of the site navigation provides obvious visual cues as to the structure of the entire site. For example, if the site has 3 main tabs at the top, all of which are unambiguous in their purpose (or nearly so), a graphical version of a structural site map is probably unnecessary, though it would still be a judgment call on the part of the developer.