Search Is Not Your Website’s Dumping Ground


Stylized image of a search box

Like water from the tap or electrons from the outlet, we tend to take search for granted. Beneath the ubiquitous experience we’re all familiar with, there is a lot of advanced engineering at play… engineering intended to empower users by connecting them to results highly relevant to their queries.

That’s the theory, anyways.

In my experience, webmasters, designers and healthcare marketers typically pay serious attention to the experience of finding and conducting a search, but completely ignore the experience of using the actual search results. As a result, we tend to efficiently direct users into searches that ultimately provide a thoughtless dump of links that ultimately proves unhelpful.

An example of this that I’m seeing more and more is the growing number of hospital and health system websites that dump all site search results for a query into a big, ugly list.

The Big Ugly List: A Common Search Dumping Ground

I blame Google for search dumping grounds. Often these take the form of lists with thousands of results spanning hundreds of pages. For years that’s the experience Google trained us to expect. Recently they’ve begun investing in knowledge graph, authorship, news embellishments and other search enhancements that let users quickly identify the content they are looking for in these lists. But this is a recent development for Google. Websites have long been conditioned to treat their search as a dumping ground for results, and I suspect it will take a significant amount of time for many of them to even recognize the problem, much less implement change. Hospital and health system websites are no exception.

Even some of the biggest and most respected names in healthcare do this. Not sure you believe me? Here’s an example of a simple search query on a well-known hospital website. It utterly fails its users:

Screen capture showing a bad website search experience.

Take a look at the experience: Notice the prominent count of results numbering in the thousands? How about the dutiful reporting of the time it took to return results? ¼ of a second… imagine that! Oh hey, we can sort all 2,440 results by date!

Why do we do this to users?

Sometimes we do these things because they are easy. And sometimes we do these things because we don’t know how to do better. And sometimes we do these things because many popular content management systems (CMSes) provide an abysmal search experience out of the box. In fact, some of them provide such a poor experience and are so difficult to work with that webmasters take it as a matter of course that the built-in search is unusable. Consequently, they look for alternatives.

Google Isn’t Coming To The Rescue

I’ve been involved in more than one Web project where it looked like salvation from the abysmal search experience problem could come in the form of Google Site Search. If you’re not familiar with it, this is Google’s search-as-service product that lets you embed a site-restricted Google search experience right on your website.

The promise of this is that you’re bringing the best in search technology (Google) to your website. And if you’ve ever tried to build a website on a CMS that provides a terrible search experience, you know how powerful this appeal is.

Unfortunately, it tends to produce results like the example provided above: an exhaustive index of thousands of possibly-relevant results, very quickly dumped out into a list spanning hundreds of pages.

While Google is making significant changes to how it presents its own search results, users of its Site Search product are not so lucky with their out of the box experience. Customization of search result snippets or the ability to provide meaningful views of results (to the extent they allow it) requires a combination of custom development and a significant investment in ensuring your content contains the necessary markup. Even if you are able to invest in this, limitations of the CMS may make it impossible to do. And so we wind up with the same search dumping ground we were trying to avoid in the first place.

This is obviously not the ideal for hospital websites.

Hospital Website Search Done Right

There’s so much more we can offer our visitors by way of search experience. The first step is to ditch the search dumping ground in exchange for an experience that more readily connects visitors with the resources they are looking for.

Let’s look at a representative example using “weight loss surgery” as a site search query term on a hospital website powered by Geonetric’s VitalSite CMS. You’ll see that results are intelligently segmented into the types of resources we can expect a visitor searching a hospital website to be looking for:

Screen capture of a good hospital website search experience

  • Related Doctors: Help convert your visitors into patients by connecting them with your bariatric surgeons, your physicians focused on weight management, and even your dietitians. The point is, you should be using your search results to quickly connect your site visitors to your related physicians with the goal of scheduling an appointment. This is simply not practical if your physicians are returned in a hodgepodge of results spanning hundreds of pages.
  • Related Health Information: We know that 74% of people use the internet to find health information online.1 Why not help them? Making sure that your site search includes your health library information is a great first step.
  • Related Events: Many health organizations host a wide variety of educational events, and are eager to connect with people who might benefit from attending. If your organization uses such events to start and build relationships with patients, your search results should allow visitors to quickly see upcoming events related to the topics they are searching about. For example, a query on “weight loss surgery” should connect visitors to upcoming bariatric surgery seminars, sponsored support groups, weight management classes, and more.

Starting to get the picture?

Once we begin to think beyond the search dumping ground, we can see that the hospital website search experience is an opportunity to quickly connect with site visitors in meaningful ways. If you’re still dumping all your search results into a list hundreds of pages long, you’re not only failing to serve the needs of your market, but you’re ignoring important opportunities as well.

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This entry was posted in Admin Feed, Best Practices, Content Management (CMS), VitalSite by Michael O'Neill. Bookmark the permalink.
Michael O'Neill

About Michael O'Neill

It’s not often you find a communications professional who is an expert writer, understands the power of social media and has the technical capabilities to embed on and contribute to software development teams. But that’s exactly the background Michael brought with him to Geonetric as the technical communications strategist. From writing eBooks to managing Geonetric’s digital presence, Michael uses his software know how and his marketing savvy to help tell Geonetric’s story through a variety of platforms. This former adjunct professor holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Worcester State College in Massachusetts and completed graduate level coursework at the University of Connecticut. In addition, Michael is also a Certified ScrumMaster, a contributing writer at iBusiness Magazine and a member of the Board of Directors at Gems of Hope. This new dad is known for his high coffee standards and has quite the following around the office when he brings in his favorite craft-roasted beans.

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