I was listening today to Scott Abel’s interesting webinar interview with Tom Johnson, and the discussion turned to search, and when search fails. This is a common enough theme in the content community today. Search fails because people don’t use the right search terms. Search fails because people don’t know what they should be searching for. But the question I was left with was this: are we asking too much of search?
Here’s the thing: If someone is searching for something but they have no idea what terminology they should be using, that is not a search problem, it’s an education problem. To say that search fails when the searcher does not know what they are searching for is like saying that a bicycle fails because you can’t peddle to Jupiter. It is true, of course — you can’t peddle to Jupiter, but that is not a reason to rethink the the design of the bicycle.
To be sure, search can be a great educational aid. If you don’t know what terms you should be using, you Google the best terms you can think of and somewhere in the results you will find clues about the terms you should have used. I call this the Google two-step. The first search gets you the material you need to get the education you need to do the second search, the search an educated person would have done in the first place. I use Google this way all the time.
To be sure, there are a couple of problems with this for the company that wants to have people find it’s content. Tom pointed out both in the webinar. The first is Mooer’s law: people don’t want to be educated. They will only seek new information when it is more painful to not have the information. The second is that your local web or help system search engine does not work like Google. It has neither the breadth of content nor the sophisticated search algorithm of Google. Search it with the wrong terms and you are not going to get material that will teach you the right terms, you are going to get “No items match your search.”
But this does not change the fact that the problem here is a lack of education on the part of the searcher, not a defect in the search mechanism. Search did not fail, the searcher failed. (And if the searcher is sufficiently motivated, they can use the Google two-step to find the terms they can use to successfully search your website or help system. I’ve done just that more than once.)
There can be cases where the fault does lie with the search, or at least with the content being searched. Tom pointed out the case of a candle manufacturer who sold a large aromatic candle as “The Room Warmer”. Unless they already knew the product name, even the most educated candle aficionado was never going to find that candle because “The Room Warmer” was the only search term that would find it.
So, if you want your content to be found, you had better make sure that your search responds to the vocabulary of an educated user in your space. Marketers and help authors would be wise to spend their time and energy in making sure that they get this basic step right, because most of their customers and most of their readers are going to come from people who are educated enough in their field to find content that uses the vocabulary of the field, or motivated enough to learn that vocabulary.
It is true that this strategy will leave the uneducated and unmotivated user out in the cold. The parable of the lost sheep says that the shepherd with a hundred sheep, if he loses one, leaves the 99 to go look for the one, and when he finds the lost sheep, he calls his friends together to rejoice over the sheep that was found. (Luke 15:1-7) This is good theology, but it is not necessarily good economics. As a shepherd, most of your revenue comes from the 99, and most of your costs are created by the 1. Leave the 99 to look for the 1, and you may come back to find the wolves have thinned the rest of the herd down to 37.
So, yes, there are people who do not know how to search for your content, and are not sufficiently motivated to educate themselves to figure out the right terminology. But those people are not exactly your best prospects. Going after those people is not not going to give you the best ROI on your findability strategy. They are what sales people would call unqualified leads: not the worth the cost of selling to.
Search cannot cure lack of education. Search cannot cure lack of motivation. This is not a failure of search. Trying to make search solve these problems is a failure of content strategy. It is putting your time and energy and resources into an intractable problem that will never repay the investment.
The proper focus of a marketer or a technical writer is to make sure that their search serves their good prospects, their educated and motivated readers, as well as it possibly can. Reaching appropriately educated users is a problem that search can solve. But it is not a problem that solves itself. It requires attention and hard work. It is where our focus and our resources should be.