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Finding a Needle in a Haystack

July 14, 2015

A content-driven website can look like an intimidating pile of information to the average visitor. You want to help your visitors find what’s important to them. How can you ensure that the right content is easy to find?

The first approach most websites take is to offer a “search” bar.

The Mountaineers - Search for rock climbing

This can be a good approach for research reports and other types of text-heavy content, but it doesn’t always work well. The trouble is that full-text search is a hard problem – Google for example spends millions on its search software and millions more tuning the results.  Even if you have a great text search, your user still needs to know something about what they are looking for in order to find it. Text search depends on your visitors entering the right words into that little box.

Another approach to helping visitors is to use the way your site is organized, the “information architecture” to guide people to the right materials.

The Mountaineers - Course Overview

This can be quite effective, if your site has materials that fall into clear categories, like types of content, or subject, publication date, or author.  But it suffers from a few drawbacks.

First, you can only expose so many layers of architecture before it overwhelms the user with too many choices. If what they seek is nested too far down, or located in too big a pile, they might miss it. Second, it depends on an agreement in terms between the label you make for an option, and the word the user has in mind.  This agreement is fragile, and dependent again on visitors knowing something about your material. Finally, architecture is forever. If you’re lucky, you might get to re-organize once every few years.  You’d better make the right choices the first time.

Department stores have solved this problem in an interesting way. You walk into the store, head to the women’s section, find the slacks, look for a color you like, then try them on.  Bam!  You’ve got what you’re looking for and you are on your way to the checkout stand.

E-commerce sites have adopted this approach as well. It’s familiar and comfortable for visitors.

Land's End - Women's pants

But it’s not just for e-commerce.  Imagine you run a non-profit like The Mountaineers that offers courses in outdoorsmanship. Perhaps I come to visit your site.  I would like to take a class, learn something new.  I’ve never been climbing before, but it looks fun.  I am an absolute beginner, never climbed a mountain in my life.  Oh, and I know I’ve got some time off later this summer!  Cool, in three clicks I’ve narrowed the selection of hundreds of courses offered by your organization down to just a few!  I can read about each, find the one that fits me best, and head to registration. We call this “faceted search”.

So how can you get such a wonderful feature for your website? You’ll need to start with a content management system of some kind.  This is where you’ll create, store, manage and display the “products” your visitors are looking for. We think the open source Plone CMS is the best choice for large sites with lots of editors and rich content.


You’ll need a robust search engine.  This is where the information about your “products” is stored. A good engine will produce lists of facet values for you, give you counts of matching items, and allow for lightning-fast lookups.  We work mostly with Solr and elasticsearch, two products built on the open source Lucene search engine. But Plone also has a fine index for faceted search built in if your needs are straightforward.



Your CMS should allow you to edit “metadata” or information about your content. Here is where you can determine what facets, or aspects of this information you want to use. With a powerful CMS like Plone, you can customize the metadata to suit your needs.

The Mountaineers - Editing an activity

Or, you can work with an external service to capture metadata.  Perhaps your offerings are stored in Salesforce.  We can index information from Salesforce into a search engine like Solr or elasticsearch, and use your CMS to display the search interface and results. Salesforce-Plone-Elasticsearch

Finally, you’ll need a plugin for your CMS that supports faceted search. Plone has a great one thanks to the folks at the European Environment Agency: eea.facetednavigation.  It lets you easily experiment with different facets, optimizing your search based on analytics about your traffic.  This means you can shape the search according to real visitor needs, frequently and with little or no developer time required.

The Mountaineers - Editing faceted criteria

With a solid faceted search experience, you can ensure that your visitors will find those “hidden treasures” they seek. Contact Jazkarta to discuss whether this feature would be a good addition to your website.

Diamond Facets

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