SearchPanel: supporting exploratory search in regular search engines

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People often use more than one query when searching for information. We revisit search results to re-find information and build an understanding of our search need through iterative explorations of query formulation. Unfortunately, these tasks are not well supported by search interfaces and web browsers. The only indication of our search process we get is a different colored link to pages we already have visited. In our previous research, we found that a simple query preview widget helped people formulate more successful queries and more efficiently explore the search results. However, the query preview widget would not work with regular search engines since it required back-end support. To bring support for exploratory search to common search engines, such as Google, Bing or Yahoo, we designed and built a Chrome browser plug-in, SearchPanel.

SearchPanel collects and visualizes information about the web pages retrieved in small panel next to the search results. With a glance, a searcher can see which web pages have been previously retrieved, visited and bookmarked. If a web page has a favicon, it is included in the bar (2) to help scanning and navigation of the search results. Each search result is represented as a bar in SearchPanel. The color of the bar (3) indicates retrieval status (teal = new, light blue = previously retrieved but not viewed, and dark blue = previously retrieved and viewed web page). The length of the bar (5) indicates how many times a web page has been visited; shorter bar indicates more visits. If a web page in the results list have previously been bookmarked, a yellow star is shown next to the bar (6). Users can easily re-run the same query with a different search engine by selecting one of the search engine buttons (1). When the user navigates to a web page linked in the search results, a white circle (4) is shown next to the bar representing that search result. This circle persists even if the user continues to follow links away from the web page linked in the search results. Complex2_numbers

When moving away from the search page, SearchPanel stays put and provides a short cut for accessing the search results. The search result being explored is indicated in SearchPanel by a circle. Moving the mouse over a bar in SearchPanel when not on the search page, displays the search result snippet.

Snippet

We evaluated SearchPanel in a real world deployment and found that appears to have been primarily used for complex information needs, in search sessions with long durations and high numbers of queries. For search session with single queries, we found very little use of SearchPanel. Based on our evaluation, we conclude that SearchPanel appears to be used in the way it was designed; when it is not needed it is out of the way and not used, but when one simple query does not answer the search need, SearchPanel is used for supporting the information seeking process. More details about SearchPanel can be found in our SIGIR 2014 paper.