Search patterns are standardized patterns describing search functionality as well as human information seeking behavior. Earlier this year Peter Morville and Jeffery Callender released a book about search patterns. Morville also gave a presentation based on the book at the IA Summit 2010 (slides, mp3), which my colleague Maria and I attended. Among the patterns Peter Morville mentions, my favorite ones are structured and actionable search results.
Structured search results
Let us start with structured search results. You might have seen that for certain queries you submit on Google, you get a richer results presentation than for other results. For example, typing the query ‘weather stockholm’ gives a basic weather forecast for the upcoming four days, directly visible in the results list. Other examples include local movie showtimes and stock information. It is even possible to use google as a calculator or a currency converter by typing in certain kinds of searches. For the curious, here is a list of all google.com search features. Structured results is about offering a more informative presentation of search results than just a title, summary, and possibly some basic metadata. It is also about not presenting all information in the same way, because the information in itself differs. Richer results presentations speeds up the process of finding relevant information since the system has already done some pre-processing for user.
Structured metadata is a prerequisite for structured search results presentation. Web pages and documents normally come with standard metadata such as date and author, but in some cases they will have to be augmented with additional information in order to create a more useful presentation. Presenting results in a custom way requires some extra development effort, especially if the structure is not initially available. However, I believe it creates much value to the user. Also, this need not be done for all types of contents. My advice would be to identify the cases where a more elaborate results presentation would be most usable. Which information is frequently requested by many people and perhaps also difficult to find because it is embedded in pages with lots of text or other contents? Search logs and user feedback in combination with thorough knowledge about the contents provides a key basis for the selection.
Actionable search results
Related to structured results are actionable search results. Entries in the search results list can be more than just displays of information; they can also be means of performing tasks. Common examples found on the web include printing, saving or sharing the search result directly from the results list. Other examples include adding to shopping cart, commenting and rating. Within the enterprise or organization additional relevant actions could perhaps be checking in or out a document, add an event to the personal calendar, starting a chat with a co-worker, and so on. As with structured results, it is about identifying the cases where it would add most value. What are the most common tasks and possibly also what tasks are complicated to perform in the source system? Structured and actionable results share the advantage that users do not have to open the actual results web page or download the document to find or do what they need. Speeding up information seeking and other tasks in this way is not only valuable in web search, it can also be very useful within the enterprise or organization. Search results lists in enterprise search solutions still look quite homogeneous and there are lots of opportunities for improvement.
To conclude, there can and should be more to search results presentation than just a snippet. I believe we will benefit from putting focus on the results presentation, and not only on tools surrounding it (filtering for example). After all, the list of results is where the user’s attention is first drawn. What do you think? How can your organization benefit from working with structured and actionable search results? If you are curious about this approach, we would be happy to help you look into what can be done in your organization.