It is often a matter of some perplexity to technical writers that more and more people seem to prefer searching the Web rather than looking for information in the documentation. It is perplexing because information found through a Web search is of variable quality, sometimes hard to navigate, lacking in authority, and has to be picked out of a big pile of fluff.
Why would people prefer to search the sprawling mess that is the Web when they could look in the neat, authoritative, well organized documentation set? Shouldn’t they, at least, look in the docs first before turning to the Web?
The reason that people increasingly prefer to Google may be found in the notion of The Long Tail. The long tail is a statistical distribution in which an unusually high number of items appear far from the center of the distribution. In other words, rather than the traditional bell curve, you get a distribution that looks more like an L shape, with as many items away from the center of the distribution as there are in the center.
Part of why docs often fail to provide answers is doubtless that the people who write the docs often don’t write about the right things, either because they are obsessed with novices at the expense of mainstream users, or they simply don’t have the background or the opportunity to write effectively about the right things.
These problems are fixable. They are not easy to fix, by any means, but we can certainly put together a plan for fixing them, if we have the knowledge, the will, and the means. But if user information needs follow a long tail distribution, meaning that everybody want something from a vast collection of information items each of which is seldom referenced, then there is no way we are ever going to be able to meet that need in docs. No one item is the long tail is going to be important enough to justify the resources it would take to create it, even if half or more of our user’s information needs fall into the long tail.
The idea of the long tail is that there are all kinds of products that a few people want, or problems that a few people have, which, taken together, add up to just as large a market as the few thing that many people want. The many things wanted by a few, in other words, weight the same as the few things wanted by the many.
Look at it this way: if Dave wants to buy bread and sardines, June wants to buy bread and Gorgonzola, and Pete wants to buy bread and apricot jam, bread may be the product in high demand, but none of them will want to shop at a store that stocks only bread.
Even if we identify and provide all the high demand content, it is likely that each individual user will want low demand content half the time. And if they go to a source that provides only high demand content, they are going to be disappointed half the time.
Do information needs follow the long tail distribution? Actually, it was in the field of information delivery that the commercial importance of the long tail came to light. Studies showed that Amazon was realizing an increasing volume of sales from obscure books, and that as access to the long tail gets easier, demand in the long tail picks up. So, it seems more than likely that demand for technical information follows a long tail distribution.
Do docs actually disappoint half the time? Personally, it feels like more than half the time. After all, you would have to document all the high demand material perfectly just to cover half the demand. And I suspect that the percentage feels even worse than it is. Not finding something takes way longer than finding it — you have to exhaust many possibilities before you give up and conclude that the information just isn’t there. Even if you succeed half the time, it will feel like you fail most of the time because most of your search time will be devoted to searches that fail.
It is not really surprising, then, that people often feel disappointed by docs. They have to be optimally researched and written just to be useful half the time. And since the resources are seldom available to research and write them optimally, chances are that even the best docs you could create with the time and resources available will disappoint readers more than half the time, and that it is going to feel to them like they disappoint even more often than that.
Little wonder then that people often prefer to Google rather than reading the docs. We abandon the dry well even if the reliable well is deeper. The Web may not cover the high-demand content well, but it tends to cover the long tail fairly thoroughly. Most people buy their bread from the grocery store rather than the bakery because they can pick up their Sardines, Gorgonzola, and Apricot Jam at the same time.
The solution? Get your content onto the web. You can provide high quality high demand content on the Web, and, if it is good content, Google will find it and bring it to the top when your users search for it. But Google will also provide content from the long tail, the vast array of low-demand content you could never possibly hope to provide, but which, taken together, supplies half your user’s information needs. To work well on the web, and as the target of a Google search, your content should work well as page one for every reader.
Every Page is Page One topics on the web. It’s how you stop disappointing your users.