• 09:35:09 pm on November 6, 2009 | 0

    Cast Your VOTE Today:  Search!

    This week’s elections got me thinking about a voting process most of us do many times a day but hardly think of that way:  searching on the web.  If you really break it down, a search isn’t some deep, technical thing we do – it’s more of a guess, an approximation, a forecast, a VOTE about what words we think exist in content we think we want to view.

    This process works quickly, magically and consistently most of the time so we rarely give it much thought.  We enter a few words, as unique and meaningful as we can make them upon 2 seconds reflection, and if we get what we want no more thought is given to it.  But many times we don’t get great results, or they’re confusing, or what we want appears way down on the list.  At these times we often blame the search tool, the content, the website we’re on.  But what about our own responsibility in this game?  Who made us the experts in the domain of information we’re looking through?  I don’t know about you but I have little interest in the details of my cellular providers’ terminology, content types and taxonomy, except as it applies to my immediate issue.  I have to admit upon reflection I’m not really much of an expert.  My queries are based on guesswork, what I assume to be common sense.  But often times they’re just my view of some other organizations’ reality – with good or bad results based on how well I’ve accurately guessed what that is!

    In order for us to create great search and browse experiences for customers in support and service we should acknowledge the realities of our searching audience.  We need to think about how our tools and content can respond when we get queries of various types.

    Many people query in greatly oversimplified fashion, ESPECIALLY when they’re not sure what to look for, since they don’t know what other words to use.  These folks are usually the least satisfied with the search experience, for obvious reasons.  We need to set up content and knowledge base results mechanisms that guide these folks to either the most popular documents we know they’re likely looking for, and/or give them further guidance on where or how to look for something in the topic area suggested.

    For example, I had a client once who discovered upon analysis that 4% of their queries were the word “vista”.  It wasn’t Microsoft, it was a company whose customers wanted to know how the new Vista OS impacted their company’s products.  This one word query isn’t really very descriptive, and it wasn’t about their stuff, so they had not done anything to respond to it.  But 4% of web traffic’s a pretty decent amount, so all they had to do was put some general documents up pertaining to Vista requirements and settings and they were able to satisfy it.

    Other people query in overly complicated fashion, using really specific terms or longer queries in an effort to get something really specific.  The same tactic applies as with general queries: being sure content exists to overview a topic, or to help people understand how the information is organized to find the specific item.  The mechanisms may be different in terms of how the tool responds to such queries, but the principle is the same.  These folks need to learn what will truly drive the specific results they seek.

    Finally, it’s often the case that a hot topic or issue comes up that people query on in lots of different ways, using a wider variety of terms and combinations than one would expect, or using terminology that has nothing to do with how the company thinks of the problem.  I recall a company that had a cash-back program that had a fancy internal marketing name that every document referred to, but no information or support built in for queries where people just asked obvious questions like “where’s my check?”, “how do I mail in the return form?” or “how much cash am I eligible for?”  In this instance adding synonyms to the search capability, generalizing the titles to these types of issues and making the wording in the content a bit more customer-friendly all helped assure people assure they got something that seemed to match an obvious common question.

    Searching is a funny sort of discipline – it’s something we’ve all evolved culturally without any rules, guidance or training.  Nobody says how to do it well, websites don’t give away any help about what’s going to work, and we are really left to our own resources to decide and cast our vote about what’s going to be in the content we’re looking for.  As long as we don’t forget that customers are indeed just GUESSING at what they want, and build bridges to meet them as they enter our world, we’ll stand a better than even chance of providing them with the best info, at least for the common questions that have the most impact both ways.

    So get out there and VOTE today – for content!

    John Chmaj
    “The Knowledge Advocate”

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