Improving Search

Background: The evidence
From the beginning, we’ve had lots of anecdotal information pointing to searching as a major problem with the website. We’ve seen comments on Facebook groups and on the digital blog. The Info Centre often gets calls just to find information on the website that should be searchable, but isn’t. And we used it ourselves.

This is supported by quantitative and qualitative evidence. Members expect search to work: it’s a basic.  Search came up repeatedly as a critical user issue in interviews, with leaders quoting the oft-shared work around of adding “scouts” to their Google searches.  Improving search and making information easier to find were the most popular website requests from our recent survey of Leaders and Assistant Section Leaders.

Comments on the search function include:

  • “Make the search function actually give relevant results”
  • “Email the information, I can’t afford the cost of searching for it!”
  • “Make sure old versions of POR/factsheets are properly removed because it is so easy to find out of date versions through a google search.”
  • “I get better answers from google than the Scout search option”
  • “It’s impossible to navigate or search”
  • “Worst search function ever – needs full update to response to request typed in – not arbitrary news result! Often can only find something if you know for sure it already exists, as often there is only one valid pathway to the info, and if you cannot get on to it, the search will not let you find it.”

From simply not being able to find what they were looking for to returning out of date results, our website’s search function doesn’t work.  Search is so mistrusted that, while 88% of respondents said online search engines are a key tool for preparing for Scout meetings and events, on our website search is used in less than 5% of visits. Because of this lack of use we are also unable to learn as much about what people are really looking for, and so it currently can’t help us build a better site.

The state of search: just how bad is it under the hood?
For starters, people don’t realise that there are three different places to search that each return different results. Illustrating this is the top 5 search terms used on, and the usage is similar for each, but the results vary wildly. members support resources
1 badges (7717 results) badges (26 results) gdpr (8 results)
2 gdpr (1) gdpr (1) por (1056)
3 por (23) por (31) nights away (73)
4 Beavers (221) nights away (102) data protection (26)
5 safeguarding (42) safeguarding (5) safeguarding (56)

Making matters worse, the majority of these searches are best served by the results from members or support resources but searches are more than 2.5 times more likely to be made from, therefore the results are usually inferior, often inadequate, or missing key results.

Finally, the search engines lack modern features such as weighting results based on popularity of pages, or the ability of website authors to ‘hint’ content as relevant to specific topics. Other features like results sorting and filtering are also lacking.

How we’re addressing this long term
As we begin building the new platform for Scouts on the web, we are working on how we can make search more effective. This touches many areas of planning:

  • Content strategy – ensuring we are creating useful content
  • Site architecture – making the purpose of content clear and the links between it useful
  • Classification – clarifying who content is for (e.g. someone’s role), and what it relates to (e.g. the section they volunteer with, or P.O.R.)
  • Lifecycle – ensuring content is retired or updated in a timely manner.
  • Avoiding duplication – Ensuring the same information isn’t duplicated in search results from different pages and there are fewer ‘sources of truth’ across the site.
  • Reducing the use of PDFs – so that content is first and foremost web-native, but can be printed or downloaded if needed.

Working through these content requirements on our new platform will continuously improve the search experience.  The new platform will allow us to keep tweaking the search mechanics over time (which is something we can’t do right now).

An interim solution
Whilst we are travelling on this journey together to the new platform, something needs to be done to improve things now, and allow us to learn more from the data better search can provide us.

We are trialling a solution using Google Custom Search Engine. This is a service that allows us to embed Google search within a site and customise its behaviour to suit a specific audience.

In our case, it allows us to conveniently search across both and the members area of the site in one place. It is, essentially, what many volunteers are already doing (using a Google search) but with results from the rest of the web stripped out. Also, as a charity we can use this without query tracking and advertising.

There are a few disadvantages:

  • new pages may take a little longer to appear in search results,
  • we can’t promote important pages over others,
  • we can’t do much to allow people to filter results in ways we might find useful,

but we think for now the advantages outweigh these disadvantages.

We have been testing with a small group over the last week, and initial feedback highlights that there is too much old content showing up and other content issues, but is positive overall:

  • Tried a number of searches for content I have looked for recently. Results returned were always relevant to my search and far better than the results returned when opted out. I did not experience any undue delay in results being returned. I think this would be a big improvement.
  • I tried about a dozen terms I had used recently or relating to Scouting issues of the last few months. All the results on the first page were relevant and even multi word terms came back with good answers (e.g. young leader). It was fast and when we get rid of the out of date stuff it will be ideal. Definitely going to opt in on all my devices!
  • The search worked fine but unfortunately the search still brings up all the out of date info as well. I realise this is a separate issue and one you will sort over time.”
  • Searched for ‘Group Secretary’ – first result was good – up-to-date 22 page (yes 22 page) manual on how to be a Group Secretary (who has the energy to read it?); 2nd result led to the up-to-date Group Sec role description; 5th result not good – out of date 2004 version of the Role Description (Item Code FS330064 Date May/04 Edition no 1 (103390))

If you have any questions or would like to be involved in testing future features, contact us


  1. Avatar Michael Dreksler 06/06/2018 / 9:27 pm

    Hurrah – I have just tried half a dozen searches and they have all returned better results than previously.
    Not a single ancient press release amongst them!

    • Avatar Kirsten Lawton 07/06/2018 / 8:12 am

      great to hear, Michael! Thank you for sharing your results.

  2. Avatar Pete Jeffreys 09/06/2018 / 6:49 pm

    A good step forward – good to show progress on one of the most complained about areas. Tackling the old and duplicated content is more difficult in the short term, but this is a good start.

    • Avatar Kirsten Lawton 11/06/2018 / 9:11 am

      Thanks, Pete! This test has highlighted content improvements we can make long- and short-term.

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