Any technology you use should be “Googlable”

By | 2014/11/03

‘Any technology you use should be “Googlable”‘. These are the words of Bill Scott,  VP Engineering, Merchant | Retail | Online Payments at PayPal, as reported by the amazing Sarah Maddox. (I say amazing because Sarah manages to lucidly and intelligently blog just about every conference session she attends. Having just helped cover the LavaCon conference, and not achieving anything like Sarah’s level of productivity or swiftness, I can only marvel at her ability.)

As a technology requirement, I have not heard this stated quite this way before, but it makes total sense. The rationale is extremely simple. Per Sarah’s report:

When you hit a problem or want to learn something, you should be able to search for and find the solution.
Well, yes, so you should. Pretty obvious once you think about it. But it is worth reflecting on some of the key words in that sentence.
First, “search”. “you should be able to search for and find”. Not open the manual and find, but search for and find. Search is the default now. If search does not return it, it might as well not exist.
The first time I drafted the last sentence of the previous paragraph, I wrote. “You have to be able to search it.” That’s how we are used to thinking about it — a document, help system, or website must have a search function — but that’s wrong. Search is not something you do to individual information products. It is something you do to the world. You don’t find the docs and then search them. You just search. As Nick Kellet noted in his LavaCon keynote:
Search is not a feature. Search is a market.
Search, in other words, is not a feature attached to a tool, a system, a documentation set, or a website. Search creates the marketplace in which every tool, system, documentation set, and website finds its audience or fails to find it.
Second, “solution”. “search for and find the solution,” not “search for and find the documentation.” The reason that you want to search the Web is that it is a place to find solutions. There is no sense in the word “solution” that there is a limit on the places or the people who might provide solutions.
Documentation is one of the places solutions might be found. But solutions might also be found in blog posts and podcasts, and forums, and YouTube videos and StackOverflow topics, and communities where you can ask a question and get an answer.
The user does not care which of these they find their solution in. A solution is a solution. There was a time when people assumed that if you wanted the solution to a problem with a particular technology, you looked in the manual for that technology. That is not the assumption anymore. The assumption today is that you Google for a solution.
As David Weinberger says (Too Big to Know):
We seem to be making a cultural choice—with our new infrastructure’s thumb heavily on the scale—to prefer to start with abundance rather than curation. Include it all. Filter it afterward.
This is what it means for a technology to be Googleable — not that you can search for documentation, or for content, or even for a subject, but that you can search for solutions. This is the essence of what the Web is: the combination and integration of all these things, of content and of community. The Web is a colloquium, and you search it as one.
Documentation can contribute to making a product more Googleable by providing more and better solutions as part of the overall set of solutions. Documentation can also act as a seed pearl, because the more Googleable a technology becomes, the more use it attracts and the more use it attracts the more problems are discussed and the more solutions are posted online, making the technology more Googleable.
Documentation can also help pull more of that traffic back to your company’s site, where you control the message and have the opportunity to develop and sustain the relationship with the customer, leading to long term revenue enhancement.
People sometimes tell me that they don’t need to worry about making their content work on the Web because there is no Web community around their product so people will not look for their content on the Web.
In other words, their product is not Googleable. If so, that company needs to pay attention to what Bill Scott is saying. If their technology is not Googleable, a lot of people are not going to want to use it. (If fact, they may not even know it exists.)
How Googleable is your product?

7 thoughts on “Any technology you use should be “Googlable”

  1. Angela

    Thanks for this insight, Mark. I am guilty of thinking that it’s not important to make my content “Googlable,” even though I know that I would turn to Google, rather than a manual or KB, 9 times out of 10 to find answers.

    I think your article is especially timely – I’m sure I’m not the only one who struggled to Google instructions for changing my clocks back for the end of Daylight Savings time on the weekend. I almost had to resort to digging my alarm clock’s paper instructions out of the messy manual drawer! 🙂

  2. Alex Knappe

    Hi Mark,
    this statement about Googleability is only one side of the coin. It is important for anything that goes into the open market. It is absolutely irrelevant for anything else.
    There is no community for machinery that is created for a single point in a production line. There is also (hopefully) no open community for a certain type of nuclear reactors.
    In my career, I had the opportunity to work for both sides: the wide open public (products with 100k+ sales quantity) and the disclosed privacy (machines with production numbers of exactly 1 piece).
    Both extremes have very different approaches. B2C products tend to have open communities with forums, reviews and the likes. B2B products in return tend to create “personal relationships” between manufacturer and customer.
    If you have problems with B2C products, you will ask Google or some narrower community. If you have problems with B2B products, you will nearly always ask the manufacturer directly.
    But there are also shades of grey in between. B2B products with large shipping quantities and widespread use take over characteristics of B2C products.
    To my experience the difference is made by quantity.
    If there are few units of the same type on the market, Googleability is nothing that is needed or desired.
    If there are many units of the same type on the market, Googleability becomes a factor.
    Another factor is the creation of revenue. When a product creates revenue for the user, this user tends (depending on his market share) to disclose informations on the product rather than to share his own experience with the product.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Alex.

      I agree that documentation for nuclear plants is not likely to be posted on the Web. Documentation that is part of a safety or security system is in a different category. (I blogged about this recently:

      But I can’t agree that being Googleable is not relevant to B2B. In fact, Bill Scott is talking about the B2B case. In the B2B case, the speed with which you can find solutions to issues with the tools you use is a direct bottom-line factor. Googleability = productivity.

      Are there cases when security concerns outweigh productivity concerns and the restriction of information is therefore justified? Of course there are. But these are the exception, not the rule.

      As I tried to point out in the post, the reason there are few units of a product in the market may well be because it has poor Googleability. Rather than Googleability only being relevant when the number of units is large, therefore, Googleability could be the crucial factor that gets you from a small number of units to a large number.

      As far as the sales cycle is concerned, one of the overriding themes of the recent LavaCon conference was how content can be used to generate leads — but only, of course, if it is available on the Web when people Google for solutions.

      1. Alex Knappe

        Thanks for your reply Mark,
        just to clear things up – are we talking about marketing and product information or are we talking about documentation?
        If we are talking about the former, I absolutely agree with you. If we’re talking about the latter, I’m back at my original argumentation – it all depends on numbers.
        The lower the numbers, the less important is Googleabilty.
        This is often due to the very nature of the products. Machine manufacturers often solve very specific business problems and have a very restricted market. Usually those companies that have this exact business problem visit the same fairs those manufacturers do. And this is also their primary place of acquisition.
        Others, that solve more general business problems, do also have higher numbers output wise and are also more visible on Google.
        It is more or less a self fulfilling prophecy that, the larger your quantities get, the higher the visibility gets, which in return turns out to a better Googleability (if only it is to reduce costs in service).

        1. Mark Baker Post author

          Hi Alex,

          Today it is a false dichotomy to separate documentation from marketing material. Documentation is marketing material. When technology buyers set a standard that the tech they use must be Googleable so that “When you hit a problem or want to learn something, you should be able to search for and find the solution.” then documentation is an essential part of the buying decision, and thus marketing material.

          This was very much the theme at LavaCon as well. We can no longer go on with the old idea that documentation only matters post sale. And since information seeking habits have changed so profoundly, we can no longer go on with the old idea that the place for the docs is in the box.

          The lower the numbers, the more important Googleability is.

          Are there markets so small and tightly vertical that personal relationship are entirely sufficient for you to find customers, and customers to find you. Perhaps. After all, as Thomas Watson said, there is a worldwide market for maybe five computers.

          For any company that wants to grow its market, Googleability of its documentation is a key enabler of growth because it is, increasingly, a key user requirement for the tech they buy.

  3. Patti Tornquist

    Really good, Mark! This is the future of tech doc,and I want to get on the bandwagon. I want to deliver content that is Googleable and that only gives what the reader wants to know. I think the future of our industry is bright, if we can deliver this kind of content.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Patti.

      I agree, this is where the future lies for technical communication. And technical communication will go on, because everyone who describes how to do something is engaging in technical communication. The question is, will the people who call themselves professional technical communicators find a way to add value in the technical communication colloquium on the Web? I strongly believe that they can, but they need to get there first.


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