person holding phone

Search may seem like an inconsequential feature — something that’s there because it has to be, but that you don’t give a lot of thought to. That may have been good enough in the past, but like many things, it no longer aligns with the way today’s college students approach the digital world. 

The majority of today’s higher education students belong to Generation Z, having been born in 1997 and onward. And as it turns out, they rely heavily on robust search functionality to find everything and anything they’re looking for. Put simply by a recent article in The Verge:

“The concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.”

Instead, students rely on search functions to find what they’re looking for. The Verge article dives into theories about why today’s students rely more on search features than they do an organized hierarchy of folders and sorted documents. But no matter the reason behind it, the fact remains that the majority of today’s students associate more with the “search for it” school of thought rather than the “I know exactly where to find it” mentality. 

“A lot of times we find that students don’t even go to that nice menu that we had made with the page categories. They just search. They type whatever they need in the search bar.” — James D’Annibale, Wilson College

What’s a Good Search Feature Look Like?

If you’ve used an on-site search bar, you know that search functionality isn’t as simple as it sounds. Even when you search for a very specific term, you’re flooded with irrelevant results more often than not. 

In light of the joke that “the best place to hide is on the second page of Google search results,” you know how important relevant search results are … especially since today’s students have grown up with Google always at their fingertips. It’s time to expect more from our on-site and in-portal search bar.

Personalized or Smart Results

Major search engines have gotten better at returning relevant results in the past years because they’ve moved away from strict keyword matching. Factors like your recent search history, demographics, location and common searches are all taken into consideration to help return results that are most likely to be relevant to you. On-site and in-platform search functions need to learn this lesson.

A search feature that doesn’t understand that “Commencement” and “Graduation” are synonyms is likely going to miss some very relevant results. Personalized or smart search results are particularly important in higher ed because there is a range of different users. Faculty and staff will likely be looking for different information than students or alumni. Without a smart search feature, every user will get a sea of irrelevant results that they have to wade through to find the info they need.

In-platform search features should take advantage of knowing a user’s role and permissions to serve up the most relevant information for that persona. If a user can’t access the information, link, page or group there’s no reason for it to appear as a result for them. 

One Search = Multiple Systems

We live in an age of information overload where everything we do is connected to one system or another. The years of using one or two systems to navigate a higher ed experience are long gone. Now students must interact with the SIS, LMS, student portal, email, school website, social media platforms and custom-built solutions. This can make it almost impossible to find what they’re looking for. Salesforce’s Connected Student Report found that more than 25% of students report having to log into two or more different platforms to find answers and access what they need to be successful every day.

Don’t make students go to multiple systems to search for what they need. One of the reasons Gen Z prefers search in the first place is because they don’t think of information as segmented. It’s all just there for the taking, they simply need to search for it. From The Verge:

“The idea that a file stored on a computer is located somewhere on that computer, in a specific and discrete location. That’s a concept that’s always felt obvious to [Catherine] Garland but seems completely alien to her students. ‘I tend to think an item lives in a particular folder. It lives in one place, and I have to go to that folder to find it,’ Garland says. ‘They see it like one bucket, and everything’s in the bucket.’”

To match this expectation and make it easy to find information, integrate important systems so that one search bar can turn up relevant results from multiple platforms.

Always be Improving

We don’t necessarily think about it, but the way we search for things constantly evolves. General search results turned into personalized search results. Formal keywords evolved into “natural language” style searches. 

Search functionality can’t be implemented and forgotten because the way we search isn’t static. Small tweaks should be regularly implemented to adjust for these evolutions and continuously return more accurate results.

The generational shift in the way users approach finding information is evidence that we need to always pay attention. While search may seem like a small feature, it’s having a moment in the spotlight, and we need to make sure it’s up to the task.