Jakob Nielsen: Bad search continues to be a problem today even though, from a technology perspective, great progress has been made. You can see this plainly when you use the public search engines. They’re much better today than they were ten years ago. But the search on individual Web sites or inside intranets is, typically, still bad.

And it’s bad in all the different aspects of search. It’s usually not unified search—no one search can search everything. This is a particular intranet problem. Things are divided up into different knowledge bases, so you’ve got to know where to search, and if you need to know where to go to search, then that defeats the entire idea.

The other problem about search is the content, which is to say the individual pages, or units of information, are typically poorly described in terms of things like the headline and the summaries, which is all people have to choose from when they get the search-results listing. So if there was just one thing we could fix on the Web, and for intranets as well, I would say let’s fix search; that’s still the number one single thing that’s causing people problems.

The second thing that’s causing the most problems is information architecture, which continues to be driven more by how the information is produced than by how it’s consumed. Intranets are usually divided up by which department does which things, as opposed to what tasks employees have, or which work activities people have.

And I’ll just mention one glaring mistake that most companies make: They divide up their networks or Web sites between products and supplies and service. There are typically three different places because there are three different divisions doing it. For a customer, however, if I have a certain copier, let’s say the X17 copier, and I want toner for that machine, or I want to get it serviced—well, what I want is to go and find my copier and, once I find it, I want to get supplies for my copier, I want to get some trouble-shooting, self-service information. But it’s a major effort because these are in different places. So that’s something we find almost every time we do a study: that information is not structured in the way that people think of it. And that has been a problem for all ten years.

And then the last thing—I mean, there’s millions of these things. But another one I want to mention is lack of clarity in the content. In other words, the descriptions, the actual information, doesn’t clearly answer the questions people have. It’s all kind of buried under a huge, thick layer of marketing, you know, of hype, and it’s not concrete. [The content] does not explicitly say what you want to know.

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