Findability is a constant theme in content strategy and technical communications, yet it seems to me that people often treat findability as a problem existing outside the content. Findability is addressed using SEO tactics and by devising sophisticated top-down navigational aids, such as taxonomies and faceted navigation, but it is seldom seen as issue to be addressed in the content itself.
I believe this focus on top-down findability is wrong. Top-down finding aids have their place, but the majority of the focus should be bottom up, and it should start with the content itself.
To begin with what should be the most obvious point, but which seems to be often forgotten: readers are not looking for content, they are looking for knowledge. If I go shopping on Amazon, I am not there to find a page describing a book, I am there to get the book. If I find the page, but then cannot get the book, my quest has failed and I leave disappointed. If I go to a used car site like autocatch.com, I am not looking for a dealer listing of a car, I am looking for a car. If I find the page, but the information on the car is inaccurate or incomplete, I may not recognize it as the car I am looking for, and thus I won’t find the car, and will leave disappointed.
Similarly, readers do not search for content because they want pages of text (or graphics, or video, or any other kind of content). They search because they want to know something and if they don’t leave knowing what they want to know, they leave disappointed. If you conceive of your findability strategy as being about getting readers to topics or pages, you are missing the point. The reader may well find the page and still not find the information. They may find the information and still not get the knowledge. Finding is not complete until the reader acquires the knowledge they seek.
Trying to solve findability from the top down runs into a number of difficulties, some of which I have talked about before:
- Web Organization is not Like Book Organization
- Readers Don’t Classify their Experience
- Sometimes, Readers Do Classify their Experience
Jakob Nielsen finds that people are increasingly search-dominant in their information seeking behavior, even though they are not very good at searching. Advanced search and navigation features generally don’t help:
In general, we almost never see people use advanced search. And when they do, they typically use it incorrectly — partly because they use it so rarely that they never really learn how it works.
The combination of reliance on search and poor search skills can only mean one thing: people are landing deep inside your content, and often in the wrong place. Expecting them to fix this by going back to your search and browse mechanisms (expecting them, for instance, to use the TOC of your online help system) are doomed to failure, because people are both search dominant and bad a searching.
The real findability problem, then, is how to get readers from the wrong place deep within your content to the right place deep within your content.
Information foraging theory, tells us that information seeking behavior is often like the foraging behavior of wild animals. Readers do not follow a logical path, but sniff around for the scent of good information. Whether the reader will stay on the page they landed on or quickly abandon it, therefore, will depend on the information scent of the page they have landed on, and the pages it can lead them to.
Pages that have a strong information scent make the information they contain more findable. The reader may easily be directed to a page by search or by a TOC or faceted navigation system, but not detect in the smell of the information they need. They may give up on the page before they get as far as the information they are looking for.
How do you give your pages a strong information scent? One of the key characteristics of an Every Page is Page One topic is that it establishes its context. By establishing its context quickly, a topic lets the reader know what they have landed on. You can’t assume that the reader is already correctly contextualized by the finding tools they used to reach the page. People just aren’t that systematic or skillful in their research methods. They get to the page and they sniff — does this place smell like information?
If the page smells good at first sniff, the reader continues. The smell is a good start, but they are still looking for the real nutrition. Finding isn’t over yet. Another key characteristic is that EPPO topics conform to type. Why is this important? If it is context that gives the content its smell, it is type that makes sure the content actually contains all the nutrients the smell promises. If the topic does not conform to its type, if it does not contain all the information that a topic of this type is supposed to contain, it is at best a Twinkie — empty calories with no nutritional value, and at worst a perfumed turd. If an appetizing smell is followed by a sour taste, the foraging reader will no longer trust this information patch and will wander off. (By conforms to type, I don’t mean concept/task/reference, which are far too general for this purpose. See The Tyranny of the Terrible Troika.)
What if, as is not unlikely, the reader has not landed on the page that contains the information they need, but on a related page. If the topic they have landed on establishes its context clearly, then they should recognize pretty quickly that they are in the wrong place. But chances are the right place is nearby — nearby in the sense that it is on a subject closely related to the current topic — and that it has a strong subject affinity with the current page. If the page fully states its context, and links along the lines of subject affinity within its context, there is a good chance that one of those links will take the reader to, or closer to, the information they need. And the very fact that there are links tells the foraging reader that it will require minimal energy to continue foraging this patch for a while.
This approach will certainly be more fruitful than searching the site. A recent study by Jared Spool found:
Using an on-site search engine actually reduced the chances of success, and the difference was significant. Overall, users found the correct answer in 42% of the tests. When they used an on-site search engine (we did not study Internet search engines), their success rate was only 30%. In tasks where they used only links, however, users succeeded 53% of the time.
Providing links along the lines of subject affinity from the current topic is much more likely to lead the reader to the correct topic than leaving them to search. As I have noted before, links are the last mile of findability. Robust and accurate linking can allow the reader to follow their nose to the content that contains the information they need to acquire the knowledge they seek.
Once the reader has found the right page, and been able to recognize and digest its information, we are making real progress. The reader finds the page nutritious. That is good, but it is not necessarily the end of findability. The reader may have eaten, but they may still be hungry. Because findability does not end until the reader acquires the knowledge they seek, it does not necessarily end with a single page. If you think of your findability strategy as a creating a single downward vector ending on a single page, you are missing the fact that a single page is often not enough to give the reader all the knowledge they seek. Findability is not complete until the reader has found and understood all the pages they need to acquire the knowledge they seek.
If the reader’s meal is incomplete, how do they find the additional nutrition they need. Sending them back to top down navigation is clearly not a good strategy. But chances are that the additional information they are seeking is related to the topic they have just read. The topics that contain that information have subject affinities with the topic they have just read. If those subject affinities are linked, the reader can follow an easy scent trail to the rest of the information they need.
Findability, then, begins at the bottom up, with the content. It starts with content that fully serves the purpose for which it is intended, which is best achieved by defining specific types for the different types of content you create (based on actual studies of user information needs) and making sure all topics fully adhere to those types.
Secondly it requires that all topics fully establish their context so that the reader knows where they have landed, and that they make that context fully navigable along all significant lines of subject affinity so that the reader can move to the correct page if they are not there yet, or find additional information if they need it.
Thirdly, it requires rich and systematic linking along all lines of subject affinity throughout the topic so that readers can keep foraging your content set until their need for knowledge is satisfied. A systematic approach to linking along lines of subject affinity is critical here. As Sean Carmichael notes, summing up Jared Spool’s The Secret Lives of Links:
Websites are full of links. How useful these links are in helping users complete tasks is another story. Links have to guide users as they follow the scent of information. A vague or confusing link often leads users down a wrong path and in turn increases their rate of failure.
Links should help the user follow the scent of information. In other words, they should follow the lines of subject affinity between topics.
These things — topics written to a defined purpose, conforming to a defined type, establishing context, and linking richly along lines of subject affinity — are the bedrock of findability. SEO is a garnish on top of this, but great content appropriately linked is the foundation of good SEO anyway. Site level search and browsing tools may play some part, but research shows they don’t work all that well, and if the content they lead to is not good, and does not let the reader complete their finding, they accomplish nothing.
Findability begins at the bottom, with the content. It can’t be added on afterwards or from above. Findability is job one from day one for everyone.