Search-centric vs the signpost

There have been a couple of revamps of council websites recently which are far more than a coat of fresh CSS. Westminster and Lancashire have gone all Googly and made their primary (as in the one they push at visitors) navigation a search engine.

This is a big shift away from the standard for local government websites which generally have a signposted navigation system. Some are still sticking with recommended (not necessarily by users) categorisation schemes under which services are listed while others have moved forward with a more usable (although in many cases still not perfect) task-orinetated navigation.

Lancashire have gone full on in being search-centric. The first page you come to is basically a big advert and a search box. In my opinion it is visually appealing and probably suits internal pressures to continue using the web channel to broadcast key messages.

On the face of it search-centric makes sense to me. Across the internets search is the main way of finding what you are looking for. Most users are comfortable with it. They like the no nonsense approach of the clean Google page.  But is it right for local government? Well, perhaps not in isolation.

Westminster have a mixed approach. The search is the most prominant navigation option on the homepage but also has the task-orientated listings underneath. Lancashire offer the option of a ‘standard view’ homepage which returns to a catagorisation style scheme.

They both seem to want to drive their visitors toward using the search though. And I can see how that would seem like a good idea – like I say, it does make some sense to me. We know from behaviour in the wider online space people like search and, let’s face it, sticking a search box on your homepage is far easier than designing a classification that tries to please everyone and then cramming your content into it (whether you’re a local gov website or not).

But I wonder if this is what the visitors of these particular sites, and perhaps local government sites in general, want?

Google do search well (and apparently there are some other search engines which can have a good go as well) so if I wanted to search wouldn’t I use Google and jump straight into the deep end of the website at the page I was interested in? Would I come to the homepage at all?

If I had come to the homepage is a search what I want to see? Or do I want to see those top tasks? I know what my personal preference is but what of the ‘real’ visitors? How much usability testing has been carried out here?

I think even if my preference was for search I would only be that way inclined if the search actually works, and works well, for every single thing I want on that site. It is why Google is thriving where so many search engines withered on the vine. From my initial playing around yesterday with Lancashire I was surprised to find not all the ‘top services’ (picked from our most commonly requested services) yeilded no results. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Yeah, took me a minute to think that one through too. Which makes the usability testing question raise it’s hand again.

A couple of other things struck me – while Westminster put their search box up front and centre on their homepage with other messages / navigation below Lancashire have got their search box toward the bottom on the left. It’s fairly small as well given the size of the advertising image. It doesn’t scream ‘search here’ to me. I’ve no problem admitting that the first time I opened the page I was confused about how to get into the site. It seems even more lost if you close the help box. But that’s just my opinion.

I don’t think an answer about what is best search or signpost can be found in looking only at these two sites especially when they are so shiny and new. It’s great that council’s are moving forward, innovating and looking at new and hopefully better ways to present their online information. I really hope they made the decisions about these designs with lots of input from visitors and usability testing. I’m really interested to see what comes next in local government online.

* I’m slow on the draw today thanks so there have been a flurry of other great posts about this:

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7 thoughts on “Search-centric vs the signpost

  1. Interesting post Sarah. I think the biggest issue with using search in this way is the heavy dependency it places on content being well-named and well-tagged. On large websites with devolved publishing teams, this is rarely the case.
    Searches also tend to return more results than are relevant, whereas navigation is more focussed. Search for swimming pool on the Westminster site and you’ll find over 60 results; I’m sure there aren’t that many pools managed by the authority.
    Search can be a good way to navigate a site — I’ve written about it before http://contentedmanagement.net/blog/when-search-is-a-good-way-to-navigate/ — but I’m unconvinced that in this case it makes for more relevant information for the public.

  2. It’s an interesting point Philippe – thanks for your comments, I’ll check out your post.
    I think there are a few considerations with using search as the main navigation but it’s interesting to see council’s moving away from a solution given as standard to us five years ago (all using same categorisation scheme) to new, innovative navigation.

  3. I’m with you Sarah (not convinced this is the way forward).

    There was a programme of user testing in place prior to the new-look Lancashire site going live. To what extent that programme reached I do not know, but certainly some degree of examination was carried out that I do know.

    For myself I think Lancashire’s implementation works better than Westminster’s, though I agree the search box needs to be more dominant. Two strengths for me are the prominent switch to Classic view (which is not obvious on Westminster’s site) and the strong single-image design of the site’s homepage to support council campaigns. Provided they can maintain the freshness of the design by further campaign images, I think it’s a potential winner.

    But as ever, its all very well having a Google style homepage. If you don’t get the fundamentals behind it right then its all rather academic. Reliance on the search means that users must be able to find what they’re looking for first time (or second at a push).

    When I tried out Lancashire’s site I gave up on the new model pretty quickly, switching to Classic view for an altogether better user experience.

  4. Hello,

    I am a data analyst who has specialised in content and content management for over 13 years.

    It’s my opinion now, after a lot of thought, that it does not matter how you search, what combination you use, if it’s strictly a hierarchy, topical or just a search box.

    It’s ALL down to the quality of the content, and how well it’s tagged. And my experience tells me: not very well.

    I will give this some thought and then post again. Initially though, I don’t think it MATTERS how you configure your site – give them a choice maybe, like Lancashire did – search or hierarchy view – but what you MUST do, is tag your content so well that you get the returns you would expect to get.

    Fix the data, not the website.

    My .02

    Dave 🙂

  5. Thanks for your comments John and Dave.
    I didn’t explicitly say it in my original post but I agree completely that the quality of the content and the tagging of it is a top priority for any site. I’ve worked in online content for around a decade myself and in my experience a site which lacks good quality content is always doomed to fail.
    I’m wholeheartedly behind the idea of fixing the data / content and also freeing it. Most local authorities could do with not only reviewing the ways they offer to navigate to content on their own websites but freeing that data for delivery elsewhere via RSS etc. But that’s a story for another time…
    It’s interesting to know there was a programme of user / usability testing at Lancashire. I’d still be interested to find out more. I’d be interested too in Lancashire and Westmisnster sharing their views / feedback on the new designs in a few months time.

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