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I spend a lot of time on newspaper and other publishers' sites, and am often amazed at how bad their site search functions can be.

A lot of sites have been redesigned over the past year or so, and have improved a lot, but their search functions can still be patchy.

Here are a few thoughts on how they could be improved...

More relevance please

Searching for 'US debate', as I did earlier in the week, should have brought news of the final head to head between presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama. Look for this term on Google, for instance, and links from Google News are the top results.

On the Guardian though, even though the news is featured on the homepage, the site search results are pretty irrelevant:

Guardian site search

Correct misspellings

Correcting common and obvious misspellings is helpful for users and shouldn't be too hard. It's something Google and several e-commerce sites can do, but the BBC, New York Times and Telegraph couldn't manage for 'recipes'.

BBC no search results

Both the Guardian and WSJ.com managed to figure out that I meant recipes, and provided a link to a search on that topic. The Guardian goes further by providing a link to the food and drink section, as well as displaying related articles.

Auto-suggest when typing search terms

This is useful when people aren't sure how to spell a search query, and helps ensure that results are more accurate. Here's an example from the Wall Street Journal:

WSJ.com search suggest

Speed up the process

By this, I mean both the speed with which results from searches are returned, as well as how quickly newspapers index their own content and make it searchable.

Most of the publishers I looked at were returning search results within a second or two, which is quick enough, though WSJ.com was on the slow side.

However, as Martin Belam points out in his test of newspaper's site search features, several, including the Sun, Telegraph and Times, are slow to index their own content.

Show extract of article text

Displaying the first few lines of the article should be enough to help users decide whether it is what they are looking for.

The New York Times does this well enough; though the extract could do with being a bit longer, it is still helpful: 

New York Time site search

The Wall Street Journal doesn't though, which makes it more difficult to find relevant content:

WSJ.com site search results

Provide decent filtering options 

As with an e-commerce site with large numbers of products, news sites containing a lot of content need to help users narrow down their searches, eliminate irrelevant results and find what they want.

Allowing users to narrow searches by date, category, keyword etc can save people the need to trawl through too many results.

The New York Times doesn't help its users here; a search for 'Iraq' brings back 10,000+ results with only the option of narrowing by how recent the article is, and doesn't even do that well.

TimesOnline provides the filtering options I mentioned, plus the ability to refine by adding additional words to the original search, which makes the whole process much less painful:

TimesOnline site search filters

See me on Twitter here....

Further reading:
Six things that annoy me about newspaper websites
Newspapers - the good news and the bad news

Graham Charlton

Published 7 November, 2008 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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