Local search: Using site search in regional press websites - Part 1

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 7 January 2009

Since the end of November I have been publishing a rather loose collection of articles looking at some of the features of the UK's leading regional newspaper sites. I've picked 20 sites that represent the print papers with the largest circulation, and cover the major publishing groups.

Regional Press Screenshots

So far I've looked at the provision of online video, local news RSS feeds and their subscriber numbers, and the spread of social bookmarking links through the sites.

Today I'm starting a series of posts which will be looking at the site search services provided by the online incarnations of the 20 newspapers.

Manchester Evening News  Manchester Evening News

In terms of placing their site search box, the Manchester Evening News site is unusual in having it on the left hand side of the banner area, as the first item in their global navigation. It is more common to see search on the right-hand side of this kind of arrangement.

Manchester Evening News banner with search box

When the user reaches the search results page, the site offers some advanced search features. On the right-hand side there are search 'facets', allowing users to filter results by category, date or author.

Manchester Evening News search filters

One thing I don't like about the design, however, is that the sponsored links above the results push the actual results themselves almost totally below the fold. This means that you are presented with options on the right-hand side to 'filter' results that you haven't yet looked at. By the time you have decided you want to filter the results, you have to scroll back up the page to access these links.

Manchester Evening News search results on initial load

Birmingham Mail  Birmingham Mail
Liverpool Echo  Liverpool Echo
Newcastle Chronicle  Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Evening Chronicle
Teesside Gazette  Teesside Evening Gazette

This family of local papers all utilise a Google Custom Search to provide their site search facility. Users can toggle between site search and Google Web Search. Search boxes are positioned in the top right-hand corner of the banner area.

Chronicle search box

An additional feature at the top of the results indicates whether the user's search matches a category belonging to the paper, in this case 'bingo'.

Chronicle Bingo search 'section' results

Glasgow Evening Times  Glasgow Evening Times

The Glasgow Evening Times was another of the few sites not to place their search box towards the top right-hand corner of the homepage. Instead, search is accessed via the top of the left-hand navigation.

Evening Times search box

During the course of these tests I was using the phrase search "iguana droppings" as one of my test searches, on the grounds that it would most likely return null results. On the other hand, if there was a local newspaper story about them, it was bound to be a corker!

I thought I'd hit the jackpot with the Evening Times, when there was one search result for the phrase.

Evening Times 'iguana droppings' search results

Unfortunately, the story was about seagull droppings, and the fact that it was returned in the results set just indicated that the Glasgow Evening Times search did not recognise using quotation marks as a way of forcing an exact phrase match.

The Evening Times also had another quirky feature, which I've never seen elsewhere. There were options to order the search results as most recent first, or oldest first, or best matches first. Bizarrely there was also an option to order your results 'worst matches' first.

Evening Times search ordering options

More worryingly, from an interface design point of view, there didn't seem to be any way, either at the top or foot of the results, to page through them. You got 20 results, and no matter how many potential results there were to look at, those 20 were all you could see.

Evening Times search footer

I know that users seldom page past the first results set, but taking away the navigation seems a bit drastic.

Next...

Tomorrow, in the second part of this series about regional newspaper search, I'll be looking at the search services offered by the Dundee Courier, Aberdeen Press & Journal, Aberdeen Evening Express and the 'This is...' network.

Keep up to date on my new blog