Recently, we did some extensive task testing with a technical audience. 70 percent started the task by clicking on a link, 30 percent used search.
The larger the website, the more important it becomes to have quality search. However, the foundation of all great websites is, and always will be, quality navigation. In fact, there is a direct correlation between the quality of your navigation and the quality of your search. The better the navigation, the better the search results will be.
Given a choice, why do people select navigation before search? Let's say you want to buy an acoustic bass guitar. You come to a page and there are two options. One is a search box and the other is a series of links, one of which is "acoustic bass guitars".
What are you going to do? You'll quite obviously click on the link "acoustic bass guitars" rather than type "acoustic bass guitars" into the search box. Why? Because it's easier and faster to click on the link. Now, what might change your mind? Perhaps if there were too many links on the page and they were poorly organized or confusingly named.
Now, suppose you see a link for "bass guitars". Would you click on that? Suppose the link was "guitars". Would you click on that? What if the link was "Musical Instruments"? What if it was "Electronics"? You might think twice about clicking on a link called "Electronics" if you were looking for an acoustic bass guitar, but that's where you'd find it on the Amazon website.
The more words the link has that match the words in your head the more likely you are to click on the link. Search is not an activity we look forward to. It's hassle and effort to type in a set of words and then scan a page of results. Give us the right link and we'll click on it every time.
It is impossible to get navigation right for everything. No matter how good the navigation design is you will always end up with "acoustic basses" under "Electronics." The thing you must do is ensure that the most popular, high demand stuff (top tasks) have the most logical navigation path.
Many organizations totally neglect search, but some seem to think that search will answer all their prayers. It's as if when they "get Google" everything will change for the better. The sun will rise early and it'll be just such a beautiful day. They don't realize that if their content is badly written and badly organized then even the best search engine in the world will struggle.
It's not an either-or situation. We search a little, then we navigate, then we might search some more and then navigate again. Search and navigation are thus intertwined and inseparable.
In many, many situations we have found that there is significantly more navigational activity on websites than searching. As it dawns on us how important search has become, what does this say about the vital importance of good navigation? Clear menus and links are the foundations upon which all great websites are built.
Related Article: Web Design: The Decline of the Homepage