Amazon has one of the best on-site search capabilities we've ever seen. But surprisingly, the reason why it works so well is likely to be the same reason why Search *won't* work well on your site.

Want to read The Maltese Falcon? Type it into the search engine and Amazon instantly presents you with Dashiell Hammett's classic novel. Want to listen to Britney Spears? (After all, somebody must!) Type it in and you're looking at her latest albums. (Interestingly, when we just tried it, Amazon also suggested we purchase a set of headphones. What should we read into that?)

Based on just these types of searches, one might assume Amazon works almost 100% of the time. In fact, that's a comment we hear often when we talk about our research on how Search works. People are always telling us that it's not the fault of Search because, after all, Amazon works every time they try it.

Amazon's searches for books, CDs, DVDs, and videos work well because the content is what we call "Uniquely Identified." Users can easily search uniquely identified content because they know what they are looking for.

For example, people identify books by title and author. They identify CDs by artist, title, label, and songs. Almost every time we watched someone shop for a book or CD on Amazon, they typed in one of these identifiers.

For instance, when shopping for a book, one user typed in "Sum of All Fears" and Amazon returned seven different editions. Amazon didn't suggest any other books with "Sum" or "Fear" -- just seven editions of that one book.

When users search the uniquely identified content and those users know what those identifiers are, then Search works very precisely. In a study we conducted with 35 online shoppers, Search returned useful results 99% of the time for CD's and videos. However, for non-uniquely-identified content, such as toys, apparel, or pet supplies, Search only worked 31% of the time.

This is where Amazon starts to get into trouble. In addition to selling books, they also sell electronics. What did users type in when they were searching for a DVD player? Well, they didn't type in "Panasonic DVD-RV31K DVD Player (Black)," which is the actual product name. They didn't even try to type in "Panasonic," the manufacturer.

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Jared M. Spool is a leading expert in the field of usability and design since 1978, before the term "usability" was ever associated with computers. He is the Founding Principal of User Interface Engineering (, the largest usability research organization of its kind in the world.