29 September, 2010

Our search sucks! Why can't it work just like Google?

"Why can't I find what I'm looking for on my own companies website? I know the document/content is there -- I wrote it. When I use Google I don't have troubles finding what I'm searching for. Why can't we have Google for our website?" (This is a topic I would not typically post on this blog, but it's an often misunderstood issue that is raised frequently within companies -- an issue I've had to address many times.)

The short answer, whether searching your companies (public) website or intranet (website), is that your company websites are not like the Internet and therefore the same technology that Google has developed for you to search the Internet will not work for your company. "But Google sells a search appliance for the Enterprise -- why can't I just use that?"

Well, you can use Google's Search Appliance, and it may even be better than your current solution, but it wont live up to using Google to search the Internet. I have even suggested more than once that companies tell their employees that their search engine is Google -- even label it, "Powered by Google." (Of course it better really be from Google if you put it on your public website.)

I read a very good two-part article from Jeff Carr of CMS Wire today, "Enterprise Search and Pursuit of the Google Experience," (part 2) that addresses this same issue I've just presented. Part 1 addresses how the Internet is structured and how Google uses it to build their search index. It includes a great video from Matt Cutts, Principal Engineer at Google, explaining how Google works (go read Jeff's article to get access to the video). Part 1 also includes how users search, the problems it causes for search engines, and taking ownership of those problems (i.e. they're your problems, not the users').

Part 2 of "Enterprise Search and Pursuit of the Google Experience" suggests an alternate perspective of the issue -- "how can we make our search experience more like Google?" And as I've shared with my colleagues and Jeff explains, it can become much better if you're willing to invest the resources. Included in part 2 of his article are 6 steps on how your organization can improve search.

Before you go down the path suggested in part 2, I would highly recommend you begin with a different approach, starting with an education process. (I do recognize that this is not likely something you can do for visitors and customers coming to your website, though you can provide a link for search help and make sure your support people are educated.) Begin with admitting it's not Google, but continue with the explanation on how Google is able to perform so well and how your company websites are not the same as the Internet. Don't present it as an excuse, but rather why it's more difficult to achieve a Google like experience.

Now that your users understand there's a difference, and that you are working to make it better, educate them on how their own search techniques can greatly impact the results. Show them examples such as what Jeff covered -- of course using your own search engine and content.

Finally, you also need to include in this education process for all your content contributors how what they write can influence the ability to find the right content when searching. Here are two examples on how the content can impact the search experience:
  1. If several content items on your website address the same or similar subjects, it will create confusion for the user when they're trying to determine which one to read when they show up together in search results.
  2. Poorly written titles will cause users to miss the correct content that was actually returned by the search engine. Users are going to scan the list of results, and if the first 3 - 5 words don't grab their attention, they're not even going to read the rest of the title. If the next 3 - 5 words don't solidify that subject, then you've likely lost them as they continue to scan the results.
Now you have your education foundation in place, you can have discussions on how much time and money is your organization willing to invest to make your results even better. Do you invest in the top-down strategic approach presented by Jeff in part 2 or are there simpler, less costly things that might make it work well enough? For example, you may just require a governance program around content writing and posting coupled with an education program for new employees. Or perhaps adding meta tagging capabilities for content being posted coupled with surfacing the tags on the search interface and results, so users can use them to help them narrow down the result set.

I have one final piece to consider as part of your search experience improvement -- how well can users navigate your website? Many, many users of your website will navigate to the content they're interested in if they can "follow the scent" to access it. Those users only resort to searching when they've lost the scent. Better navigation and design of your website could lead to a reduction in users being frustrated by your search.

How's your companies search working for your users? Please share your input.

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