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CONTENT Fixing your site search means fixing your content

We spend a lot of time and effort trying to get our web content found by search engines. Why wouldn’t we focus at least as much on making sure people find what they’re looking for when they actually get to our websites?

When your customers and prospects visit your site they’re looking for something, and if they don’t see it right away, onsite search is often your last chance to help them meet their goals. That’s one of the key takeaways in a new report published by Forrester Research, Google-ize Your Site-Search Experience1, which quoted my point of view: “If organizations spent a fraction of the time thinking about their own site search versus their own SEO and findability, I think websites would be a lot better off.”

It was an interesting discussion and one that mirrors those we often have with clients: How can we “fix” our broken site search? The reality is that it’s usually not the search functionality that’s broken; it’s the content.

Creating a ‘Google-like’ search experience

If the idea is to create a “Google-like” search experience, let’s stop for a moment to consider what Google does. First, they invest heavily in the experience, which makes sense since search is part of their core business. But is it part of your core business? It kind of is.

A 2013 joint report from Google and Nielsen (PDF) showed that 48% of mobile research started with search. And just this week, Google announced that there are now more Google mobile searches than desktop searches worldwide. Trends in both mobile use and search habits continue to tick up so it’s in all of our best interests to pay attention and serve our customers where they are. Users are getting less patient in navigating to information and default to search as the quickest path.

Google/Nielsen research shows search is most common starting point for mobile research

Google maintains its position of leadership in search by continually improving how people quickly get to relevant content. In just the last few years:

  • They’ve introduced predictive search based on frequently used search terms to help users be better searchers.
  • They’ve introduced the Knowledge Graph to provide more context around their search results.
  • They’ve enhanced the image search tool to refine and filter based on file size, color, type, time, usage rights and more.
Google has enhanced image search experience

But the greatest enhancement Google has made is in how they measure content value. The releases of Panda in 2011 and Penguin in 2012 sent shockwaves around the SEO industry as they threatened to upend a number of well-worn tactical approaches marketers were using to improve their SERP. The enhancements were largely in response to some shady use of those tactics to drive traffic (and, therefore, ad revenue) but not actually provide any value for the user. It was too easy to game the system with keyword loading, link-backs, and various other approaches.

Google had to figure out a better way to understand how people were using the content once they found it. Low-value content was penalized and high-value content was surfaced.

And therein lies the challenge most companies have with their own search experience: there’s no process for evaluating content value and purging what’s no longer valuable. The best search appliance in the world can only work with the material it has.

Managing content to support the onsite search experience

The old adage of “junk in, junk out” has never been more true than when we’re talking about our onsite search experience. We’ve become content hoarders. It’s like expecting our users to sort through years’ worth of old junk piled up just to find the one valuable trinket.

Optimized search begins and ends with quality content. So if you’re struggling with your onsite search experience, my suggestion would be to look first at the content you have. Is it valuable? How do you know? Some steps you can take include:

  • Looking at your internal search queries: What are customers looking for and what are the words they use in searching? Then identify the best source of information you have to answer those questions and ensure the language you use reflects theirs.
  • Looking at your analytics: What are the high-traffic, high-value pages? What are the navigation habits after a user engages with this page? What’s the conversion rate between those who use search and those who don’t?
  • Auditing and purging your content: If it’s not providing specific value, it’s damaging your search experience. If it’s out-of-date or incorrect, then it’s damaging to your brand and potentially worse.

Search is becoming more and more of a default habit for users: before and after they hit our websites. We need to ensure we’re supporting how users navigate to our content or risk losing them. You can rest assured Google will point them in a new direction.

1 Google-ize Your Site-Search Experience: Follow Three Best Practices To Ensure Site Search Matches Your Customer Experience Goals, published by Forrester Research October 19, 2015, and authored by Anjali Yakkundi and Dominique Whittaker

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Optimized search begins and ends with quality content

To search is human, so the search experience should be humanized, too. A great search experience doesn't simply answer a question. It anticipates the person's broader intentions and then encourages him or her to take action.

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