Searching The Independent

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 3 July 2006

I've recently been doing a survey of how well search works, or doesn't, across a number of British newspaper web sites. Last week I looked at the site searches offered by The Times, The Sun, The Daily Mail, and The Evening Standard's This Is London. This week I'm starting with a look at search on The Independent.

Search on The Independent's homepage is accessed by a small box towards the top right-hand corner of the page. It doesn't seem to be placed particularly prominently, being in the fourth column on the homepage.

Search from The Independent's homepage

The search results page is reasonably clearly laid out. There are no sponsored results, and the majority of articles have a lengthy abstract or excerpt in their search engine listing. Each listing includes the title of the article, date of publication, a relevancy score, and an abstract.

The Independent's search result listings

However, the interface rather forces the user to utilise 'Advanced Search' as this is the only search box that appears on a results page. I think this could be quite intimidating for the novice and average user.

The Independent's advanced search interface

The advanced search interface presents three different search boxes which three different options - all the words, any of the words and without the words. My best guess is that they are designed to be used together i.e. putting 'beckham' in the first box, 'england madrid' in the second box and 'victoria' in the third box ought to find stories about Beckham which mention England or Madrid, and which don't mention his wife. However it isn't entirely clear that those are the results I would get. However, I would give The Independent credit for providing users a way of constructing sophisticated Boolean logic searches without having to know any of the operators required.

There is an additional option to filter the results by 'channels'. Again I don't think the label or terminology is helpful here - selecting the pull-down menu shows 'channel' actually means section of the paper.

The Independent's advanced search channel selection

The advanced search has a date range filter, and searches automatically default to being carried out between the 1st of January 2006 and the current date. This appears to be at odds with the behaviour that the site itself explains. At the top of the results page the explanatory text states that:

The simple search contains links from 1 January 2005. Use the advanced search functions on the right to change the date or other filters.

I don't understand whether this genuinely means that the 'simple' search from the homepage looks into the archive going back to 2005 but that the advanced search form on the results page is different and defaults to January 1st 2006, or whether it just means someone forgot to update the explanatory text in the search templates on new year's day.

The relevancy of results was also patchy. I was unable to understand why my search for "england sweden result" returned at #1 the letters page led by a comment about nursing standards, whereas a story about the World Cup was in the number #2 spot. Particularly as the second story, published on the same day, had a 'score' of 74%, compared to the #1 result's score of 39%.

The Independent's search generated some oddly irrelevant results

I also found that the search was a little bit prone to bugs. When a search had generated a large number of results, the page would display links for up to 20 pages of results. Clicking on the link for the 20th page of results would display some search engine listings, but from that page clicking on any link to get to another page of results would generate a blank set of results and a pretty ungraceful error which broke the layout of the page.

searchExpression is required
publicationId is required
The Independent's search generates some errors

On the whole then I was disappointed with the search provided by The Independent, particularly as they seem to have invested considerable time and money in putting all of their content online. Rather like The Sun's search offering, I find it very odd that a business which has based their online revenue generation model around getting people to pay to download articles, provides such a poor user experience to people trying to find the very articles that they might want to download.

The Independent search - feature summary
Results per page 25
Article excerpt or abstract Yes
Date stamp (day/month/year) Yes
Time stamp (hours/minutes) No
Article word count No
Navigational or Section information No
Specifies original publication No
Specifies original edition No
Specifies original edition page number No
Results display colour-coded No
Search terms highlighted in results No
Relevancy score (%) Yes
Destination URL displayed No
Sponsored links featured in results No
Site offers web search No
Default search Site - restricted to since 1st January in current year
RSS feed of search results No
Advanced search options Yes - different search boxes to construct logical search with need for operators and filter by 'channel'
Search by date-range Yes - advanced search allows precise date filtering

Tomorrow I'll continue with a look at search on the Daily Mirror's site.

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