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Dec 16, 2002: Wondering about Advanced Search

Some good discussion on when to use "Advanced Search" on SIGIA-L recently. Actually, the discussion was as much about why to use it as about when.

Everyone I talk to suggests that users don't bother with it very much. How come? Here are some guesses; feel free to suggest your own:

  • It's mislabeled. "Advanced" might turn off users who don't consider themselves advanced. Or it might conjure an image of a complicated interface that not useful enough to bother learning. Or one for which there is no convention; yet another reason not to mess with it. For one reason or another, the term "Advanced" probably turns off most users.
  • It's mislocated. When do we really need "advanced" functionality? When we want to revise a search that didn't perform as well as we'd hoped. When does that happen? After performing that initial search, naturally. Instead of the false dichotomy of "Simple/Normal/Basic Search" OR "Advanced Search," it seems to make sense to lead with a simple search box and then provide a "Revise Search" capability for users who aren't happy with the results of their simple search. So relabeling "Advanced Search" as "Revise your Search," and having it appear at the right point during a search session, might be useful to consider.
  • It's a useless legacy. In the olden days before the advent of the Web, online searchers often received training in searching. If you were searching a Dialog database at $200 per hour, you'd better be "advanced" enough to know what you were doing. Older search tools, usually designed for "advanced searchers," often served as a model for many early Web search tools. In fact, some of those established tools (e.g., Verity) power many of today's sites. So "Advanced Search" may come as part of a standard search tool configuration, and gets implemented by default.

If you're wondering about the utility of having "Advanced Search" on your own site, consider a simple user study that asks subjects these questions:

  1. What does the term "advanced" in "Advanced Search" mean to you?
  2. What would you expect to see when you click on "Advanced Search"?
  3. Is "Advanced Search" something you use? If so, when and why?

Any other questions you'd want to ask?

More importantly, does anyone have data to suggest that "Advanced Search" is being used frequently? If you do, I'll bet dollars to donuts that your site serves expert searchers, like librarians, and medical and legal researchers, that got used to "Advanced Search" functionality before they became users of the Web.

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Comment: Rich Wiggins (Dec 16, 2002)

Lou, I agree with all your points. I think there's another factor, a variant of the Google Effect: you don't need it for the vast majority of searches. Given a well-chosen initial search, Google delivers good results a huge percentage of the time. Naive end users who never were trained in the intricacies of Dialog are finding what they want with their first search.

I think Jakob Nielsen, while suggesting that every home page should have a search box, says there should be NO link to Advanced Search there. Instead, users should see it on the results page, as a way to refine a search that didn't work well. Makes sense to me. Why confuse users with a choice they don't need most of the time?

Early in the days of Lycos, I interviewed its founder, Michael Mauldin. He told me an interesting story. Lycos had a "Small Catalog" and "Large Catalog". The small one was more useful for 99% of searches, because it helped people find starting points. The large one helped people find more obscure stuff.

Guess what? Everyone used the Large one. Bigger is better, right? Lycos dropped the distinction.

If I'd been smart I would've realized then (1995? 1996?) that the correct answer would be a silent federated search of small and large, with small results first.

Or invent Google. :-)

Comment: Shane (Dec 16, 2002)

ad·vanced (ăd-vănst') adj.
1. Highly developed or complex.
2. Being at a higher level than others: an advanced text in physics.
3. Ahead of the times; progressive: advanced teaching methods.
4. Far along in course or time: an advanced stage of illness; a person of advanced age.

All of these definitions lead me to believe that advanced isn't the proper word for what advanced search really provides. Action-oriented verbs like "customize" or "refine" are better descriptions. It's unfortunate that "Advanced" is so entrenched...

Comment: anu (Dec 17, 2002)

My guess [based partly on my own experience], is that most users have, at some time, tried advanced search on some site somewhere, and found a complicated interface producing results that were no better than their simple search. Once bitten, twice shy.

Comment: vanderwal (Dec 17, 2002)

I now completely agree with Lou's points that advanced search is not a needed option. I did not always find this to be the case. With HotBot I always went straight for the advanced search as I could easily add or subtract the terms used to attract or repulse results to my screen. Google largely changed all of this as its engine provided a decent result without the needed boolean-like tools.

The advanced search option now seems like it is an indication of a poor search implementation on a site. I tend to like the advanced search, but I have found repeatedly in usability testing on issues like this I am way outside the norm. Most users seem to be like Anu suggests and the advanced term only confuses things.

I have found repeatedly that few users opt for the advanced or power user options. Many novice users click on these links as they explore only to find they really do not understand these features. During user/usability testing I have interviewed testers that knew they did not fit the advanced mold felt the whole site was unusable and uneasy to use after they ventured into the advanced areas. Similar users that did not venture into the advanced area (or did not have the option to venture into the advanced areas) felt the same site was rather easy to use and intuitive. These responces came out of post session interviews and were rather consistant (unfortunately I have not had a similar scenario to test with in a year).

Comment: Prentiss Riddle (Dec 20, 2002)

Okay, let's agree that users can't handle boolean operators or other bells and whistles.

So don't keep them for your users, keep them for *yourself*. If the designers and administrators of the system don't have recourse to a set of power tools, what will you do when the VP of Foo calls in a huff wanting to know where her pet page went? I use advanced search features every day and don't want to think what life would be like without them.

With that in mind, it may be permissible to sever the link from ordinary search to advanced search entirely. Hell, you can hide the advanced search in a database or behind an API and require a knowledge of SQL or Perl if that matches the skillset of the keepers of the system. But don't throw out an essential administrative tool just because the unwashed masses find it confusing.

P.S. Has anyone attempted to reconcile the widespread use of fielded author/title/subject searches in online library catalogs with the "dumber is better" consensus for web searches? I see a discrepancy there. Are online catalogs universally too sophisticated for their users, or does the bibliographic domain lend itself to more sophisticated searching than the wilder and woolier web, or are library users smarter than web users, or what?

Comment: Avi Rappoport (Dec 27, 2002)

I like having "search options" available but subtle, because every so often, a person wants to filter by date, location, name or whatever.

It just occurred to me that "language" is an option which is rarely important to those of us who read English, and yet is immensely valuable to people who don't want English text.


Comment: luka sherron (Dec 29, 2002)

Re: analysis of "advanced" searching options and terminology

everything you said was true. in cases where the term advanced search
useful is if say i am looking up red carpets..the search results
provide links
to carpets which may be red..advancing that would liken to clarifying
initial statement..clicking advanced search would fine tune the words
carpet providing me with only carpets which are red.

boolean is the premise to clarifying search meanings and
capabilities, i think
that its good to get as close as you can the first run out, but to
provide the
option for the fact that you may not have is good, too. now should it
called "advanced" only if the term directly and precisely applies to
the terms
of use.

i avoid it if i am not crystal clear on my question, if i realized i
know that all these other options were available. like life sometimes
we know
exactly what we want and other times its just some vague idea that
needs time
and information to grow and beyond that sometimes we only think we
because we don't know everything we should know.. that is a very real
occurance, i think search engines should reflect the generalizations
that are
"real" to the human condition as a whole. of course, there is more
once you've
perfected that..

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