Are we asking too much of search?

By | 2011/06/10

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.





Category: Content Strategy Tags: ,

About Mark Baker

I am an aspiring novelist and former technical writer and content strategist. On the technical side, I am the author of Every Page is Page One: Topic-based Writing for Technical Communication and the Web and Structured Writing: Rhetoric and Process. I blog at and tweet as @mbakeranalecta.

8 thoughts on “Are we asking too much of search?

  1. Ryan Pollack

    I was listening to the webinar also, and I couldnt agree more. I like the idea of a help system offering up unknown unknowns, as they discussed, but there has to be _ some _ input into the system.

    We should be capturing search terms and making sure those terms are included in the relevant topics. But we’re not mind readers 🙂 it’s a fascinating problem though and one I hope people look into more.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Hi Ryan,
      I agree that we should be paying close attention to search terms. Actually, I think we should go further than that in trying to understand the vocabulary of our users. There are many resources for doing this. Sales people and field staff in your company talk to users and know their vocabulary. And you can find our where your readers hang out on line (or in real life, for that matter) and listen to their conversations.

      1. Ryan Pollack

        Yes, I’ve been trying to get my writers away from talking with R&D about terminology discussions and more towards talking with support specialists, sales technicians, etc.

  2. Jonatan Lundin

    I don’t fully agree in blaming users when not finding anything. Wasn’t it D Norman who said that you can never blame the user if a design fails, only the designer.

    When designing something you need to define and understand who you are designing for (the population). The design must be built to accommodate the knowledge level, behaviour etc of the population. Of course, if someone outside of the targeted population is using the design and is failing, it is not the designer to blame.

    Whenever you design something you should be explicit about the purpose of the design, the support it is intended to give and who the target audience is. The user is expecting a certain a level of support. The actual design can furthermore be measured from its actual support. If the actual support is way below the intended support it is not the user to blame, but the designer. My experience is that technical communicators are seldom explicit about the intended support.

    Is your manual built to always allow a certain user type find the answer when searching? If not, what is your intention?

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Hi Jonatan,

      I don’t disagree with anything you say. It was not my intention to blame the user for all search failures, but rather to point out that there is a limit to what we can reasonably expect from the best search engine working on the best content. As you point out, design should be done to meet the needs of a specific audience, and it is no fault of the design if it fails for someone who does not fit the user profile. Lance Armstrong and a five-year-old child may both enjoy their bicycles, but if they switched bikes, neither would be happy trying to ride the other’s machine. Design that is universal in its ambition is doomed to failure. All design must have a specific target.

      Good design is practical, and has specific, limited, achievable objectives. Allowing someone who does not know the vocabulary of a field to find information in that field is not an achievable objective. Still less is it an achievable objective to expect search to return people information they do not even know that they want.

      Cognitive distance is cognitive distance. Before we can understand, we must cross the cognitive distance between our current understanding and the new understanding we need. Search can conquer the physical distance to information, but not the cognitive distance to understanding. To say the crossing cognitive distance is an education problem is not to blame the user, it is simply to recognize that there is no panacea here. We should design content, and the search engine that works on that content to perform as well as possible for its target audience. We should not expect search to obliterate cognitive distance for the entire population of the planet.

  3. Yuriy Guskov

    Actually, the precise search is what Google founders set as own goal. Ironically, they still has not made any advance in that direction. Since Google appearances, all enhancements were either visual or social, which, no doubt, made search better. But it still fails. Fails epically, and sometime funny (when the search returns evidently wrong results).

    The problem is we lack precise identification at the side of an user and at server-side. As well, some relations between items should be established. If not for the whole article, but at least for the subject of the article.

    I’ve described how it may be treated at:

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Hi Yuriy,

      Thanks for the comment. I haven’t had the opportunity to review all you material yet, but I do think it is unreasonable to say that search fails if it does not immediately provide the full and complete answer we were looking for. The word is, after all, search, not oracle. We have been searching for information (and many other things) for as long as we have been human. It has always been a long, painful, expensive, and uncertain pursuit. Google makes searching for information so much faster and more comprehensive than any previous method of search that it is, by any reasonable measure, an enormous success.

      It is very much looking the gift horse in the mouth to complain that it does not have the oracular omniscience of the Enterprise computer.

      1. Yuriy Guskov

        At this moment, Google is number one in search. That’s right. But seems like many one don’t believe there can be something more successful. Even though, Google just fails when you try to search something a little complex, than just one-two word. Try to search something which has complex relations like the situation, when your computer fails with rebooting. Google would return full and complete answer, yes, but you forced to look that answer in million references. It’s ridiculous. It is not full and complete. It’s like you come to a library, and a librarian said: “The book which you are looking for there, in that pile”. Who said we want a oracle? We want just more precise search. And this search is impossible while we are looking through plain text. And even natural language processing won’t help here, because usually information has a lot of implied or ignored information. That’s why I vote for methods which would help us to make information more precise (both in query and results), this way search may be more precise too.


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