Search is somewhat like an airplane. If you go to a meeting in another city, the plane takes you most of the way. But the plane only takes you to the airport. The meeting is somewhere downtown. You need some other means of transport to take you the last mile to your meeting.
I wrote recently on the impossible expectations that we have of search. Search fails, many claim, because it cannot always get you right to the single exact piece of content that you want. As I argued here, I think that it is unreasonable to ask such precision of search. Even if the limits of language did not interfere, the reader still would not know enough to enter perfect search terms every time. Search is the long haul carrier of findability. But we still need to travel the last mile. And the last mile of findability is being sadly neglected.
Actually, it would not be so bad if search were more like an airplane than it is. If search were more like an airplane, it would always take us to the landing page. And if the landing page were well designed, links would then take us the last mile to the content we need.
But search actually works more like the Tardis. Like Google, the Tardis can take you anywhere in time and space, but its navigational circuits are not perfectly calibrated, and the traveller is often left in the wrong part of town. The last mile must then be made on foot. For the Doctor and his companions, this is usually the beginning of an adventure. The Google equivalent, which is to deposit you on a page that is somewhat related to the subject you are interested in, but not quite, is more apt to lead to frustration than adventure, because most pages offer no means for travelling the last mile to the page you really want.
Landing pages might be a wonderful thing if people actually landed on them. I say might, because landing pages usually express the author’s or webmaster’s view of what people should be interested in and how information should be organized, which usually does not match the reader’s view (and cannot, really, because every reader is different). So people use search to bypass the landing page and end up — well, they end up somewhere on your site, somewhere close to what they want, but usually not quite right.
This is the inescapable thing: Every page is page one. Every page is a landing page. Every page is where the long-haul flight of search deposits the reader, and where their last mile to the content they really want begins. And, in most places, there is not a taxi in sight.
The problem is this: we design every page as if it was always the right page. But if we think about it, even for a moment, we must realize that a page is often the wrong page. Many of the readers who land on any given page have not landed on the page they need. They are probably close, at least in the sense that something on the current page is related to what they are looking for, but they are not exactly where they need to be.
Ask yourself this: in your average web search or help system search, how many pages do you look at before you find the one you want? If your answer is just two, then half the pages you visit are not the right page. If your answer is five, then only 20% of the pages you visit are the right page.
By designing every page as if it was always the right page, we are designing pages that do not serve more than half the people that land on them. Having got them close through search engine optimization and all the other tricks of large scale findability, we abandon them in the last mile. Small wonder, then, if they decide to hop a flight to another city and try their luck there.
How do we provide the last mile of findability? I believe the answer is twofold: context and links. A good every-page-is-page-one topic should do two things:
1. Establish its context. The reader has been dropped on the page out of the clear blue sky. They know where they wanted to be, but they don’t know where they are. So the first order of business is to orient them. It must be done quickly and efficiently, of course, but spare a sentence or two to help them figure out what this topic is about and how it relates to other topics. If you are in a large structured information set, you can provide more structured context guidance as well, perhaps something as simple as a box that tells them which product this topic covers, what release it applies to, and what type of information this is.
2. Provide links. Once the reader has their bearings, they are ready for the last mile. Provide them with the links that take them that last mile. Your context-setting material should be rich with links to related material. Remember, search got the reader close. The topic they want is contextually near to the topic they have landed on. Linking on the words that describe the context of the current topic will lead to contextually near topics, providing the means for the reader to travel the last mile. And if you provide a context block that describes the context in formal categories, provide links to related items in those categories. Provide links from this product to a similar topic on a related product, from this release to the same topic for earlier and later releases, from a concept topic to a task topic or an example topic on the same subject. And, finally, provide rich links throughout your content. It is very easy for the reader to hop back on the plane if this topic is not working for them. All they have to do is highlight a phrase, right click, and choose “Search Google for…”, and they are away into the blue yonder. But if that same phrase is a link to your own content, they will probably click on it, and stay in your content.
Links are surprisingly unpopular in technical documentation today. Creating links in traditional DTP tools is expensive, and many of the structured writing tools and processes used today are not optimized for rich and consistent linking either. Authors using DITA are regularly advised to remove links from their content in order to make it easy to reuse.
I think this is a terrible mistake. Linking is the last mile of findability. And the last mile is the only mile that actually delivers the goods. Without the last mile, the whole journey is for nothing. Use SEO as much as you like to bring readers to your content, but if when they arrive they cannot travel the last mile, their journey, and your effort, will be for nothing.
Think about this before you adopt your next authoring tool or platform: Linking — rich, accurate, consistent, reliable linking — is the last mile of findability. If you don’t have a rich linking strategy, you don’t have a complete findability strategy.