Don't Outsource Your Forum Search To Google

Mike King

Online communities are becoming increasingly popular for building relationships with clients, users and prospects.  But companies are finding the current technology lacking in areas like flexibility, extensibility, theming and search.  This blog, one in a series covering forum-related terminology, is focused on faceted search.

Faceted Search Results

What is Faceted Search?

Yonik Seeley, the creator of Solr - an open source enterprise search platform written in Java, gives an excellent description of faceted search in his post on the topic.  “Faceted search is the dynamic clustering of items or search results into categories that let users drill into search results (or even skip searching entirely) by any value in any field. Each facet displayed also shows the number of hits within the search that match that category. Users can then “drill down” by applying specific constraints to the search results.”

Fascinating Aspects of Facets

Here’s an example that illustrates how this works.  When a user searches for ‘running shoes’ in a forum, the search results include product “facets” such as type, brand, size, color and price, etc.  The facet values for Brand in this case would be Asics, Adidas, Brooks and Nike.  Those results will show the number of matches by facet so the user can use that value to assess whether to include that facet in a refined search.  But, here’s the cool thing.  Faceted search can also return blog posts, forum posts and articles about running, and reviews of running products; this information will also include specific users who posted, shared or liked this information.  The user who entered the search can narrow the search results for specific information by selecting the facets that are of interest and deselecting those that aren’t.  And if they like information shared or posted by another user they can then elect to follow that user from within the forum interface.

The ability to sort content (e.g., forum posts) based on multiple criteria is common especially in web search engines.  You can list a series of words in the order by which you want the attributes sorted or simply enter Faceted Search Inversoft Blogany combination of words.  This is helpful if the user knows the criteria of the search and the search terms to use.  They might search for Trail Men’s Nike and get a search result with just the trail running shoes for men made by Nike.  What’s nice about Faceted search is that it identifies many different attributes (facets) of the content and provides a structure to help users understand the content set and give them ideas about what is available and how they can search for it.  This way, if the user is unsure which attributes to search for, they can still easily refine the search by selecting or deselecting the attributes that matter.

The Benefits

One of the main benefits of faceted search is that there is no predetermined hierarchy of results.  If a user searches for running shoes, they can add or remove constraints in any order to drill down by selecting facets.  To illustrate this point using the running shoe search example, the user could select to see only results for trail running shoes from the Asics brand within a specified price range.  They also see the results at a glance by the number of matches for that attribute.  So by selecting to sort by the ‘trail shoe’, ‘Asics brand’ and ‘price’ facets, the user significantly reduces the number of shoes in the resulting search.  Once the user has drilled down to find their match they can see the bread crumbs above the search results, so they know how they got to the search result and can navigate back to any point in the search by clicking on the desired bread crumb.

An issue that happens when faceted search is not available is that there can often be so many matches that the search algorithm is not able to provide a small enough sample, which often results in no result presented.  The faceted search allows for a more specific categorization of the results so the result can be displayed effectively.

Adding Value

Faceted search gives forum users an effective way to refine their search results so they can find just the results they are seeking.  This sophisticated search functionality can add value to any high-content forum, but it is particularly useful for forums with an e-commerce element.  If a forum or website has products, faceted search can help the visitor easily find just what they want to buy.  But, faceted search can also prevent visitors from using an alternate search tool that could direct them away to competing sites.  There are a number of ways faceted search can be incorporated into the search function of forum technology.  Remember, if the forum’s search functionality stinks, so will the forum.