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Relevance Is …
Relevance makes sure that all records that match a query are found. However, what does it mean to “match a query”? Relevance is an intelligent matching that takes into account typo tolerance, partial word matching, spatial distance between matching words, the number of attributes that match, synonyms and query rules, natural language characteristics like stop words and plurals, geolocation, and many other intuitive aspects of what people would expect from search, especially in the Google era.
Finding records is only part of the story. Once you have the “right” records, another aspect that comes into play is how the records are ordered, or ranked.
Ranking - Putting the Best at the Top
Relevance is ranking. It’s the top results, what you see on page one, or within the first three or four pages. Relevance is, therefore, not all records that match, but only a subset, ranked at the top of the list. If the best match is lost on the last page, or in the middle of hundreds of pages, you’ve failed to achieve relevance. In this sense, while finding the right records is important, if the user doesn’t see the best, you’ve failed to achieve relevance.
So relevance is a kind of yin/yang mix of finding records and putting them in the best order. But does it stop there?
Promoting your business
Relevance is also about promoting your business and creating meaningful context, using such tools as custom ranking, merchandising, personalization, and analytics. With these tools, relevance is about creating results that best showcase and sell your products.
Meeting User Expectations
These tools also help match your end user’s expectations. Relevance is about user expectation, giving the user what they are looking for. When a search matches the user’s intent, you’ve achieved relevance.
And it’s about discovery as well. Users are not always looking for a specific item. They are browsing, defining what they need with each new query. In this sense, relevance helps a user decide what they want. Here is where the speed of the search and the user experience on the front end add to if not fully define the meaning of relevance. This is the aspect of conversational search that is central to providing relevance.
Finally, relevance is a UI/UX concern. The speed of the search, the highlighting of key terms in each result, faceting and filtering, pagination and infinite scrolling - in a word, relevance is the overall user experience that allows users to navigate through their results to find, discover, and refine their search.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
Nonetheless, all of this presupposes finding and ordering (ranking) the best records. With these twin criteria taken care of, a foundation is built upon which intent, expectation, discovery, promoting and showcasing your business, and good UI/UX can thrive.