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Web Search Effectiveness

The U of S search uses Google's Custom Search (Google CSE) as its internal search engine. Google CSE is a free service offered by Google where they perform the search and we are allowed to re-brand the results to look like a U of S page.  One of the limitations of this service is that the search index is updated approximately once a month.  Additionally, this service only includes public web pages and there is no guarantee that every U of S page is included.

Although search-engine technology plays a role in finding information on U of S websites, the most important role is played by the information on the webpage itself. After all, when you go to a library, it doesn’t matter whether the library uses the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal classification systems as long as you can find the book you want. The same goes for websites, it shouldn’t matter which search engine you use (e.g. Google, Bing) as long as you can find the information you are seeking.

Understanding Search

In order to understand why a search engine may be more or less effective in finding certain information, it helps to understand a bit about the structure of sites and how they are searched.

Webpages are made up of many parts. They have many different visible elements, such as headers, footers, and the core body content. They also have hidden elements (metadata) that are used to describe the webpage. Each webpage is considered a unique document and multiple webpages are joined together in a website.

According to Wikipedia, in the 1990s search engines relied heavily on metadata to classify webpages, but today it’s less useful as a result of abuse of elements such as keyword tags. Also as search engines have become more advanced the need for metadata has lessened (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meta_tags).

Title Tags

Title tags are the most important piece of metadata when considering search. Titles are the name of the actual web document. They are what Google and other search engines use as the main link in a list of search results (See Google's Search Result description for more information). They are also used by web browsers to tell you what page you are on and as the default name for the page if you bookmark it.

Search engines try to match the words typed into the search box with the words that appear on websites—both in the text on the page and in the structural elements. In addition to the page title, headings and content must also match the words people are using to search for information. The closer the search terms match the content on the webpage, the higher up in the search results the page will appear. It is very important to understand and use the language visitors to your site will be using when searching for information.

Title and Display Name

In the WCMS Out-of-the-Box Site, we've made it easy to create useful title tags by using inline metadata on the pages. In addition to being used by web browsers and search engines, the title is also used as the heading for the page you are creating. The Display Name is used for the context navigation on the right and the pull down menu along the top.

Improving Search Effectiveness

Imagine if chapters in books weren’t bound together and books weren’t organized according to subject in libraries. You’d have to find chapters in random locations to locate the information you need—sound like anything you know? Fortunately, search engines exist and can help us find webpages in the wild frontier of the World Wide Web. But the technology can only take us so far. The rest is up to the content on the website.

As books have certain elements that are needed (e.g. title, author, publisher) in order to ensure they are classified correctly, so too do webpages. These include organization, classification and content. There are several things that can be done by website managers in order to make their information more findable.

Organization/Menu Structure (Navigation)

Websites require a well-formed organization and navigation structure (like chapters in a book). The organization is fundamental to the development of a website. The sections of the site must use clear headings that uniquely describe the section. It is also important to provide a site map or site index, especially for larger sites. These are helpful for visitors to the site, human and search engines alike.

Classification

Every webpage needs a title and they should be unique for each page. Otherwise, search engines have added difficulty in classifying the webpage and in distinguishing one page from another.

Page titles need to be descriptive and specific to the page in order for them to be effective. They need to be written like you would write a heading—from the specific to the general, without adjectives and short.

Titles that are too long will be truncated in the list of search results (around 60 characters including spaces). If the most relevant information is at the end of the title, it is at risk of not being included in the search result list, especially if it has to come after a long organization name.

Content

Effective content is the key to having information found. If the content isn’t well structured (and the site is poorly organized) it will be difficult to find, regardless of the technology used to find it.

Webpages need to have information that people want to find and the page must use the same language that the searcher will use when trying to find the information. If someone is looking for the “Samplesite Basic Page” but that phrase doesn’t appear anywhere on the Samplesite Basic Page webpage, then it will not be easy for a searcher to find the correct page, especially if it is not included in the page title or main heading.

The first paragraph of each page should clearly articulate the subject of the page—if it is not evident at first glance that the page has the information being looked for, the reader will click the back button. Unlike books, you shouldn’t have to wait until the last page/chapter to find out how it ends.

Headings and subheadings play an important role in web content. As readers scan the content contained on websites, the headings and subheadings should be prominent so that they show readers where they are. However, if you use too many they become ineffective.

The larger and more complex the site is, the more critical it is for each page and section to be uniquely identified and for the organization to be clear.

Summary

The key to effective web searches is having effective web content.

  1. The website needs to use the same language that the people use when searching for the information.
  2. Titles and headings need to be short and descriptive because people are scan readers when reading online.
  3. The first paragraph needs to clearly identify the subject of the page.
  4. Good content will be found regardless of which search engine is being used.
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