UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Revisiting iSoton

Posted by Brian Kelly on 6 Jun 2008

In February 2008 I asked the question “Is Southampton Setting A New Standard For Institutional Web Sites?“. There was subsequently a lively discussion about the iSoton service, with Helen Aspell, Head of Digital Marketing at the University of Southampton and the person who led this collaborative project, describing the background to this work.

But in addition to the main iSoton page, which provides access to information about the University of Southampton held on Web 2.0 services including Youtube, Flickr and Wikipedia, it is also work noting the approach taken to the provision of a search interface for resources at the University of Southampton. The search page is illustrated below.

University of Southampton search page

It is interesting to observe the single search box used for searching (on the top row) publications, people and experts and (on the bottom row) the main University of Southampton Web site and all Web sites at the University of Southampton.

And although the Search publications option allows you to refine a search or start an advanced search, this isn’t the case with the other searches.

Does this, I wonder, reflect the evidence that very few users ever make use of the advanced search capabilities? Or is this a worrying trend, a dumbing down of search for what should be typically an intelligent group of users?

I have to say that I’m looking forward to hearing Helen give a talk about the iSoton service at this year’s Institutional Web Management Workshop (IWMW 2008). Alison Widish, head of Web Services at the University of Bath recently commented on a presentation by Helen at the CASE 2008 conference: “I eagerly awaited Helen’s talk and I wasn’t disappointed“. Alison went on to say:

Overall I was really impressed with Southampton not just with the website (which I find visually appealing and easy to use) but with the way the University LIVE their brand. It’s incredibly important to know who you are as an Institution and to provide an experience which reflects that… and it’s great to see this being carried across to the web.

Lots of food for thought!

And as this year’s theme for IWMW 2008 is “The Great Debate” I’m sure Helen’s talk on the first day of the event will help to contribute to the discussions on future directions for both the institutional Web site and institutional approaches to search. But if you can’t make it to Aberdeen, feel free to engage in the debate here.

8 Responses to “Revisiting iSoton”

  1. Mike Nolan said

    Does this, I wonder, reflect the evidence that very few users ever make use of the advanced search capabilities?

    When we were redeveloping search for the Edge Hill website I purposely removed almost all “Advanced Serarch” options. You enter a search term you can filter down by certain types of page – news, events, courses – and for courses you can limit by type of course but otherwise you get what you’re given! This perhaps reflects that search is just one of the navigation methods we offer – you can also browse by tag, see events visually on a timeline and we’ll be introducing more in the future.

  2. Chris May said

    I had to read the sentence “It is interesting to observe the single search box used for searching […] publications, people and experts” a few times before I worked out what you meant – because of course there _isn’t_ a single search box used for searching those things; there are three.
    I thought that was interesting, because making the user answer the question ‘which index do you want to search” before you let them search, is a kind of advanced-search-by-stealth.

    When we redesigned Warwick’s web search recently ( we purposely avoided this (following some observations from the BBC’s search redesign), instead using a single search box for web pages, images/media, blogs, people, and past exam papers, and presenting the different result types in tabs – for example may

    Analytics on our search interface suggests that very few users ever use the ‘advanced’ options, but I view this not so much as a ‘dumbing down’ of the users, but rather a welcome “smartening up” of search engine capabilities. We’ve also gone to some lengths to make it easy for website owners to make it easy to embed pre-customized search interfaces into their own web pages (see, for example, the livesearch on the right of, which again cuts down on the number of end users who have to get to grips with an advanced search.

  3. Chris May said

    Bah; your auto-linkifying code didn’t quite do what I expected. The example search I tried to link to was this one

  4. Hi Chris: In the blog post, I meant that there was only a simple search box for each of the search services, with no advanced search facilities.

    I would agree that this isn’t dumbing down, but “smartening up” of search engine capabilities in order to respond to how users actually behave, rather than trying to force them to behave in particular ways.

  5. paulwalk said

    I completely agree with this sentiment. It’s funny, but I remember how smoothly impressive Google’s minimal interface seemed when I first saw it way back when, after a few years of Altvista’s cluttered screen. Whenever I see ‘advanced search’ as a label I tend to think ‘clunky search’….

    I’m still a bit underwhelmed with iSoton but I quite like what they’ve done here with search – I wonder how the users will take to it.

  6. Mike said

    Almost all the user research that has been carried out on search demonstrates that a single box with single button is the most effective and usable way of presenting a search interface. The same research suggests that if you have complex, multi-faceted content then you *can* (if you want ) present *results* in a multi-faceted way. So for instance “Your search returned 100 results: 20 books, 45 pictures,…” etc.

    Ditto, if your content is complex enough then a link to “advanced search” is also suggested. Almost everything else (the word “boolean” used ANYWHERE…, “search within results”, etc) confuses most “normal” (non-specialist researchers) and should be avoided at all costs…

    Whether all this is the case because Google does it, or whether Google does it because it works is another question…

  7. @ Mike, in order to deliver what you advocate you need to have a tool that works across all of your databases and document systems. We do not, therefore, the choice left is to present all the search options that are available rather than presenting a single search box interface that doesn’t work and frustrates the user. If/when we replace the current search tool we may be able to remove a couple of choices but in the short to medium term I’m not convinced we’re going to integrate e-prints with the staff database with the site/domain searchs. Out of interest both internal and external users have welcomed the ease of searching. Although this is probably biased by the fact that we’ve elevated some searches that we know audiences regularly performed and therefore saved them from navigating to the relevant channel.

  8. Christopher Gutteridge said

    For ECS we spent a year logging the search terms and built a search on top of that data. All people search the school website for is:
    * Systems information (probably our own staff, offsite, trying to remember how the VPN works)
    * Our People
    * Our Research

    so we built a search that just searches databases not pages: publications, people, projects, research themes, research groups and press releases. Plus a clutch of 20 or 30 keywords to catch phrases like VPN and UCAS. I think it’s a far more useful approach than the page you discuss in this post, it does not force the user to self-select their subject area. The computer just shows matches from each area.

    Check it out:

    (just type in the search box)

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