How search can help you understand your audience - part 2

 by Martin Belam, 6 May 2003

Using search to spot flaws in navigation

Search logs also provide a wealth of information on what users are trying to find, and are failing to find. A prominent example of this on the BBCi site has been searches for "eastenders". The previous iteration of the BBCi homepage [Nov 2001 - Nov 2002] included a drop-down menu of popular TV & Radio programmes. The list was alphabetical in order, with the exception of EastEnders, which was placed at the top so that it showed in the input box.

The November 2002 redesign removed this television drop-down menu in favour of using the homepage link to the TV page, the A-Z index and the genre categories as the access points to television programme information.

Immediately that EastEnders no longer appeared directly on the homepage we saw a rise in the number of searches for "eastenders". It is now regularly (with the exception of weeks when there are major news events, significant specialist broadcast events, or when it is exam season) the top search term on the BBCi site.

Comaprison of two iterations of the BBCi Homepage, illustrating the different navigational routes to the EastEnders site

However, it is also an interesting example of people using 'search' rather than navigation or bookmarks as their means to reach a favourite website. Although we observed that searches for 'eastenders' increased, we found that the term had been in the top ten search terms on the site on a weekly basis, even when EastEnders had featured more prominently on the homepage. This is still illustrated by the fact that people still search for 'eastenders' having navigated to the 'E' page of the A-Z Directory, where the EastEnders site is the first site listed.

Search logs can also be used pro-actively to influence the navigation of a site on a micro level, and there are further examples of this within the BBCi A-Z Index, one of the main navigational tools on the BBCi site, accessible via the BBCi toolbar on every page.

Illustration of the three different ways to navigate to the BBCi A-Z Index, via the BBCi Homepage, the Categoires page, or via every page on BBCi with the global navigation toolbar

Firstly we produce a weekly report on what have been the most popular search terms alphabetically. This gives the A-Z team an idea of material they might consider for inclusion in the 'Sites by Name' section at the top of the A-Z pages. Secondly the A-Z team monitor the searches that are carried out from the 26 alphabetical pages themselves. This gives a very strong indication of where users are having difficulty locating content, even when they have navigated through to the index.

A recent example of this has been that the team spotted a rise in the number of searches for "iraq" being made from within the A-Z Index. As a result they added a link to news features about Iraq to the 'I' page, even though at the time the BBC was not using as a top level directory name. So by monitoring search behaviour they were able to provide a quick iteration to improve the user experience for those that followed.

Reports illustrating how observing search behavious shapes the navigational links within the BBCi A-Z Index

In the third part of this article I will look at how search logs can help you spot problems with usability, and gaps in the content of your site.

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