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testing site search: running the tests

So you’ve prepared for testing site search.  Now you have to run the tests.

Set aside a reasonable block of time where you won’t be interupted. Schedule later sessions bearing in mind the crawl timescales. If you make changes you’ll need to wait for the crawl to run before you can test again.

You need content in the system before you can test search.  The ideal scenario is to be testing search once a site or system is fully populated with real content but this often isn’t possible. Don’t wait for the system to be populated if that means you won’t be able to make any technical changes.

So allow time for content creation as part of testing. You’ll probably want a mix of real content and dummy content that has been specifically written to test an aspect of search.

You’ll need to record the results so you need a spreadsheet.

  • Set up columns something like this:the query (linked if you are running the tests from here), whether the results are ok, a description of the issues, hypotheses about causes, changes or adjustments made to validate, bugs reported, screenshots (where necessary)
  • Create new versions of the worksheet each time you test, and label accordingly. If you make changes to the content or the configuration then test again after the crawl has run
  • Add queries to the spreadsheet as you go. No matter how good your original lists, you’ll explore other issues as you actually use the system.

I’m not merely testing. I’m attempting to analyse and resolve the issues. You could argue that I shouldn’t need to do this, I could just log all the issues with the supplier and get them to resolve them. In my experience it is more successful to do as much as possible yourself.

So what does ok mean? Inevitably it is subjective and it is also qualitative. You could compare with benchmarking metrics for the existing site but some part of the testing usually relies on the subjective judgement of the expert tester. Where time for testing is fixed, I raise the bar with different rounds of testing i.e. round one could be focusing on results that are patently unacceptable, with later rounds raising the standard of quality.

(this testing is in no way meant to replace user testings, the intention is more to test that the functionality works as promised and to get the results to the sort of quality that it is worth putting in front of test participants!)

Mostly you’ll have no problem spotting bad results. Explaining the bad result is the challenge.

Possible sources of issues

Incomplete crawls. First check the search engine successfully completed a crawl. Testing is easiest if you can check yourself. Otherwise you’ll keep having to nag the suppliers/IT to tell you if the crawl went ok. Ask if there is an interface that shows how the crawl went and ask for access.

What is the default query syntax? This is a simple one to check off. If you thought the search was performing an OR search and it is actually running AND then that might well explain why you aren’t happy with the results. And vice versa.

Documents/pages that shouldn’t be crawled? Pages I’ve seen in the results that shouldn’t have been there include:

  • admin pages (in one case the blocked profanity list!)
  • permission controlled pages
  • quiz answers
  • form thank-you page
  • user profile information

You may need to get rid of a lot of these pages before you can see the true quality of the results.

Documents/pages that should be crawled?

  • other specified domains in addition to your main site e.g. www.rnibcollege.ac.uk as well as www.rnib.org.uk
  • all sub-domains e.g. not just www.bbc.co.uk but also jobs.bbc.co.uk and news.bbc.co.uk.
  • pages regardless of their position in the site
  • Office and other documents
  • images, video, audio (depending on how you want these assets to appear)

What is being indexed within a document/page? You can check by creating a variety of dummy content and adding your test keyword to a different field on each piece of dummy content. Choose an unusual keyword that won’t be appearing in the rest of the content (I tend to use my mother’s Polish maiden name). Fields to check:

  • titles
  • URLs
  • meta descriptions and keywords
  • main page content
  • authors and other metadata relevant to your content set
  • navigation and page furniture (you’ll see this cause trouble more when the content set is small)
  • full content of Office document, pdfs etc?
  • metadata attached to multimedia assets

What filters are being applied? Check for:

  • stop words
  • stemming
  • thesaurus

Ask if there is an interface where you can view/edit these filters. If not, ask for copies of the actual files.

What is affecting the ranking? This is complicated to test with any ease as most systems use a variety of factors and there’s usually a level of mystery in the supplier communications. Consider:

  • where the keyword appears
  • how many times the keyword appears
  • the ratio of keywords/article length
  • type of document
  • links to the document, text of those links, authority/rank of the linking page

If you’ve been told that your search system utitlises “previous user behaviour” to adjust ranking then this can make testing a bit tricky. It also gives the suppliers a black box to hide behind if you don’t think the search is working right.

I’ve been told “don’t worry about testing search, this is a learning system”. Which sounds lovely but on day one the search results still need to be good enough to go live and you’re going to have to really work hard to get a grip on how the system is working. And who says it is learning the right lessons? In this particular scenario I doubled the amount of time I had set aside for testing.

Next:  Solutions to try

Written by Karen

August 14th, 2009 at 3:35 pm

Posted in search