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’ve used it ourselves.

And 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 cant 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  • “Make sure old versions of POR/factsheets are properly removed because it is so easy to find out of date versions through a google search.”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”
  • “its 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From simply not being able to find what they were looking for to returning out of date results, our website’s search function doesn’t work.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 also are unable to learn as much about what people are really looking for, and so it also 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 scouts.org.uk, members.scouts.org.uk, and members.scouts.org.uk/supportresources: the usage is similar for each, but the results vary wildly.

scouts.org.uk 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 scouts.org.uk, 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 in, 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 our site and customise its behaviour to suit a specific audience. 

In our case, it allows us to conveniently search across both scouts.org.uk 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 couple of 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.

Give the new search a try
Before rolling it out fully, we would like your help testing the new search.

  1. You will need to opt-in to try it (how to do this is below)
  2. The new search will only work on scouts.org.uk (not members.org.uk) when you have opted in
  3. The opt-in is by browser cookie, so you will need to opt in on any device and browser you want to search with
  4. Test it as much as you want over the next week or so (the release timeframe depends on your feedback)
  5. Please provide any feedback using the widget labelled “feedback”  that you will see on the right side of the search results page


After clicking the link you will be taken to the Scouts home page, where you can use the search box as you normally would. Your choice will then persist until you return here to change your preference.

If you have any questions or concerns about the pilot process specifically, contact us (please provide search test feedback as described in step 5, above).