You are currently reading the second part in the series Design Elements of Search, the one about autocomplete suggestions. When you’re typing text into the search bar, something is happening just below. A list of words relevant to the text appears. You probably know this from Google and around the web. I will share my findings and some best practices for autocomplete suggestions now. Call me a search-nerd, because I really enjoy implementing awesome autocomplete features!
A blog series – Six posts about Design Elements of Search
- The Search Bar
- Autocomplete Suggestions <– You are here
- Landing page
- Zero-results page
A word on Technology and Relevance – a disclaimer
Equally important as having a good user interface is having the right technology and the right relevance model set-up. I will not cover technology and relevance in this blog series. If you wish to read more, these topics is well covered by Findwise since before: Improve search relevancy and Findwise.com/technology.
Designing Autocomplete Suggestions
I bet you recognize this? It just works right. But how do you get here? Read on and I will tell you.
Autocomplete suggestions is a nice feature to offer when you expect your users to execute the query by clicking the search-icon or pressing the enter key. However sometimes your search solution is set up in such a way that for each character the user enters, a new search is performed automatically, this is called instant search. When this is the case you do not want autocomplete suggestions. Google experimented with instant search a few years ago. Google decided to revert back due to a few reasons. However, providing instant search in your use case might still be a good idea. In my experience instant search works well for structured data sets, like a product catalogue, or similar. When your information is diversified, the results could be either documents, web pages, images, people, videos and so on, you are probably better of providing traditional search in combination with autocomplete suggestions.
Suggestions based on User Queries
In my experience, using queries as the foundation for suggestions is the way to go. You can’t just take all queries and potentially suggest it to your entire user base though. What happens if you have a bad actor who want to troll and mess up your suggestions? Let’s say a popular query among your users is “money transfer” and your bad actor searches for something as nasty as “monkeyballs” 100 times. How do you make sure to provide the right suggestion when your user types “mon” in the search bar? You definitely don’t want your search team to actively monitor your potential autocomplete suggestions and manually weed out the bad ones.
One effective method we use is to check if the query matches any document in the index. Hopefully (!?) you do not have any document containing the word “monkeyballs” in your index, and therefore these terms will not be suggested to your users in the autocomplete suggestions. Using this method will make sure your suggestions is always domain specific to your particular case.
Another safeguard to ensure high quality suggestions is to have a threshold. A threshold means a query need to be performed X amount of times before it ends up as a potential suggested term. You can experiment with this threshold in your specific case for the best effect. This threshold will weed out “strange” queries like seemingly random numbers and other queries entered by mistake, that happens to yield some results.
Here is a high-level architecture of a successfully implemented autocomplete suggester at a large client.
Right information, in the right time
So far, I have explained how to weed out the poor and nasty terms. More importantly however, how do you suggest terms in a good order? Basically, to achieve this, we consider the more people searching for something, the higher up the term will be in the list of suggestions. How do you solve the following case? Let’s say summer is coming up, and people are interested in “Vacation planning 2020”, how do you provide this suggestion above “Vacation planning 2019” in the spring of 2020? The term “Vacation Planning 2019” have been searched for 10.000 times and “Vacation planning 2020” only have been searched for 200 times?
Basically, you need to consider when these searches have been performed, and value recency together with number of searches. I don’t have an exact formula to share, but as you can see in the high-level architecture, we divide the queries on “last year, last month, last week”. Getting a good balance here will help boost recent queries that will be of interest to your users.
Add Static lists
Sometimes, you possess high quality lists of words that you want to appear in the autocomplete suggestions without the users first searching for them. Then you can populate the suggestions manually once. You may have a list of all the conference room names in your building, you may have a list of subjects that content creators use to tag documents. Please go ahead and use lists like this in your autocomplete suggestions.
Highlight the right thing
When presenting search results on the results page, you want to highlight where the query matched the document. Read about Results in the fourth part in this series. In the autocomplete suggestions however, you want to do the opposite. In this state, users know what characters they just entered, they are looking for what you are suggesting, this is what you highlight.
Here we are, right at the end of autocomplete suggestions. Coming up in the next part, I will give you details about filters. Filters is surprisingly difficult to get right. But with some effort, it’s possible to make them shine. See you on the other side.