Why Context Matters in Building Effective Website Search

Search Box on Chalk Board

Picture it: you’re on a website. You’re looking for a specific piece of information and you’re in a hurry. After looking at the navigation it isn’t clear where the information is. What are you supposed to do? You look around and there, you see it, the solution to all your problems: the search box, of course! You type in your request and press the submit button.

Behind the scenes an entire world of logic, computer processing power, and data spins to life to read your mind and deliver exactly the piece of information you’re looking for. If you misspell a word, it guesses the correct word. If the target of your search is a difficult or unusually spelled word, it uses a phoneme dictionary to identify similar sounding words or names. Search is one of the most complex and data intensive parts of any website. The denser the data, the harder the challenge to identify what the user means — not just what they say — and providing results that satisfy that need.

Using context to enhance VitalSite’s search

Providing the right search results requires more than just a lot of processing power. The logic underlying the search process must strive to understand the context of the user experience. The goal is not to just provide a bunch of things the user could be looking for, but the right thing.

Within a hospital website, there is a lot of context we can gleam from the visitor’s actions. If the visitor is looking at birthing plans and from that page searches for a provider, we can expect they are looking for an OB/GYN. Knowing about the visitor’s intent allows us to sort the results to provide the most relevant providers first.

This context drives us to continue to evaluate and update our search logic. In our most recent release, VitalSite 15, we updated the way that provider search works to prioritize results based on the match to the taxonomy term on the page. In other words, results now take the context of the search into account first, as seen in the chart below.

Name First Priority Second Priority Third Priority
Alphabetical Ascending Highest Term Weight Alphabetical A-Z
Alphabetical Descending Highest Term Weight Alphabetical Z-A
Best Match Search Relevance (Closest distance for Zip) Highest Term Weight Alphabetical A-Z


Highest term weight compares the taxonomy of the visitor’s page with the taxonomy of the provider so that providers more like that service line are seen in the result list first.

It’s all about user experience

These small tweaks to the way we think about providing data back to a website visitor not only means we are constantly reviewing how the website is used, but also ensuring that our client’s website becomes more relevant to their visitors. We want to reduce the sense that visitors often have on websites: feeling like they are lost. Small changes like this make a big difference in the visitor’s experience.

How can you use these changes to make the most out of your search? See another recent post to learn from a specific example: Physician-Seeking Behavior.

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This entry was posted in Admin Feed, Best Practices, Consumer Expectations, VitalSite by Jennie Ocken. Bookmark the permalink.

About Jennie Ocken

Jennie gets product development. With more than 10 years of experience in marketing, engineering and client services at a company that worked exclusively with Fortune 1000 OEM companies, she knows how to identify and prioritize customer needs. And she speaks just enough geek to be accepted by software developers. Skilled at both cross-team communication and agile project management, Jennie leads Geonetric’s engineering team, helping them prioritize, test, document and deliver new features and functionality. She holds a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s degree with a double major in creative writing and theatre from Knox College. When she’s not team building or wireframing, this world traveler can be found planning her next adventure, perfecting her Joong Bong Sul moves, or working on her latest science fiction novel.

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