Your site search isn't as important as you think


Many times I've heard from colleagues who want to make our help website search the top priority and I think they’re really missing more important priorities that are much more effective in assisting customers in finding relevant content (and site features/functions).

Step back for a moment and consider your site search compared to a Google search. (For that matter even compare to Bing and Yahoo search.) The technology is fundamentally different. Google indexes every page its crawler can access. Your site search has a finite amount of content to index. Google looks at what pages are the most popular both from links to (the pages) and click-throughs (and so much more). At best your search engine knows page popularity, which will become a problem for new content and may likely become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Most people will search with 1 to 3 keywords -- only sometimes using a phrase. Google has a rich history of search results related to those words and what’s been clicked on most frequently. Your site search tries to use natural language search, though the search wasn’t natural language, so it eventually reverts to keyword popularity. You may have invested in some concept and synonym work, which is very time consuming, but your search engine is still just playing a popularity game, matching the searched keywords with articles that contain those keywords.

Your search engine is going to add weight to longer articles that match the keywords because there are more matches. If you have many similar articles, the Searcher is going to have to weigh through a lot of links and content to find the most relevant match. Your short knowledge base articles don’t stand a chance. Meantime, in addition to the popularity of prior searches, Google is considering site reputation and how many other sites have linked to a page in order to find the best possible search results.

I know I’m scratching the surface on how Google achieves its success, but hopefully, I’ve made my point. If not, consider while Google has invested billions of dollars on search, how much have you invested? How much can you afford? Could you spend 1%? Not even close.

Now that we agree that your site search will never live up to Google’s search, the best we can hope for is that our customers (and prospects) know how to use an inferior site search engine. Unfortunately, most Searchers don’t know how to make more sophisticated searches or use natural language to get the most out of your site search. Therefore, you need to prioritize other factors above working your site search.

Think in terms of findability and discoverability. What can you do to improve the findability of your content and reduce the need to even use your site search? I’ve got 5 items on my list that you should prioritize above your website search engine.
  1. Product (or marketing) links
  2. Improve Google search results (SEO)
  3. Article titles and metadata
  4. Site browsability
  5. Chatbot
  6. Site search capability.
[I know someone is going to argue that a recommendation engine as part of the site search makes the search engine more important. While I don’t disagree there is some value, you still need to consider the maintenance cost and how many recommendations you can surface as part of the overall equation. Yes, find a way to make sure your customers can easily find your top contact drivers, but wouldn’t it be nice if you didn't have to constantly manually maintain that?]

Product (or marketing) links

Why is this #1? Because your customers have the best shot at discovering your content through the course of their normal workflow. If I’m configuring your software and I have a question, I hope there is an obvious link to more info from that screen/page -- I should never have to hunt around for more info. Ideally, I would stay within the configuration workflow, too, never leaving the configuration screen to go to your help website.

If I’m reading some marketing materials about your product and a particular feature or function is of interest, embedded links should take me to a deep-dive on the subject. If you’ve written contextual links, it will also help you with your 2nd priority, SEO.

The key takeaway is to make it so your customer and prospect never have to search to begin with.

Improve Google search results (SEO)

If your customer is looking for help and there is no obvious, easy help within your product, this is likely where they’re going to search Google. For those potential customers, they might not even know you’re a player in your market, so SEO becomes even more important.

People have made careers being SEO experts as well as written untold number of articles and books. Before you invest further in your own site search engine, invest in SEO. In fact, a good site search engine will leverage some of the things you do for SEO. I’ll focus on some of the fundamentals here, but I recommend you make this someone’s responsibility on your team (and have them dig deeper).
  • Don’t have duplicate content. Have 1 source of truth for every topic. With duplicate content, you’re asking Google to determine programmatically what is the most relevant. Google may also split influence scores (link juice) across your duplicate articles instead of focusing it all on the one source of truth. If Google does return your duplicate content, then you're forcing your customer to choose what's more relevant.
  • Use meaningful titles and headings/subheadings. Your content should match exactly what your title and headings promise. If you want Google to return the right content at the right time, be sure to give Google the correct information. Of course, it’s worse for your customer -- how many times will they be willing to click-thru only to find content that doesn’t match the title?
  • Canonical URLs. This is a way to tell Google a preferred URL for a page (and how you can clean up your duplicate content mess). Image if you have 3 URLs that all lead to the same content (1) myURL.com/123.html; (2) myURL.com/the-title-123.html; and (3) myURL.com/product/the-title-123.html. Without a canonical definition, Google may treat these as 3 different pages. You lose the benefit of the weight all 3 bring together to weigh the pages against other potential results. Further, you may again have your customer trying to figure out which of the 3 links to click. Finally, if you have multiple country based pages, e.g. Canada, UK, and the US, this is one of the techniques to use to tell Google to make sure it displays the right country-specific page. This last point regarding the country should really be emphasized. If you have similar content, but some unique considerations based on country, you definitely want the right content to display in the right country.
  • Unique metadata per page. Very similar to not having duplicate content and the use of meaningful titles and headings -- make sure it’s really clear to what is Google the purpose of each page.
  • Site reputation. If I start writing news articles on technical subjects on my own site, there are very established, reputable outlets that are already writing about technology that I must compete against (and it’s more important than ever to not negatively impact your site’s reputation). If Google sees your site as a reputable source of information, your placement improves on search results, but if Google sees your site as surfacing a lot of click-bait or other ‘poor’ behaviors, you will lose reputation and struggle more and more to get your results to show above the fold.
  • Write better content than your competition. Whether your competition is another company or a scammer trying to take advantage of your customer, your content better be written better and more compelling. Study and mimic and build upon what’s already performing better than your own content until you’re content and your SEO performance is better. I realize in some cases this may be a nearly impossible task if you're in a very crowded market, but for the rest of us, it’s a good plan.
There is so much more that can be written here and Google is constantly tweaking and improving, too. If you’re interested in learning more yourself, Moz and Search Engine Land are great places to start.

Article titles and metadata

I already spoke about this in the context of SEO, but there’s one more consideration. When your customer looks at a list of search results, how will they choose what to click on? Most people skim or scan lists and will only read the first 3 to 5 words or the first 11 characters. Your titles should be front-loaded with the subject, so the customer recognizes that the link will take them to the information they're interested in. Imagine results like this (below) where everything initially appears to be the same.
      How to fix XYZ dishwasher water leaks…
      How to fix XYZ dishwasher water not getting hot…
      How to fix XYZ dishwasher hard water issues…
      How to fix XYZ dishwasher dirty dishes…

When you’re not front-loading your titles, you’re forcing the reader to slow way down and try to read each. Will they slow down? Research says they won't, so you risk your links getting skipped over if you aren’t front-loading with the subject of the page.

If you’re a help website, most customers are searching on symptoms, so front-loading with symptoms makes it much easier to quickly find what they want.
      Leaking from the bottom of the XYZ dishwasher
      Water never gets hot in the XYZ dishwasher
      Soap scum residue on dishes from XYZ dishwasher
      Dirty dishes after a full cycle on the XYZ dishwasher

The second example is much easier to scan and find what I’m looking for than my first list. Notice I still included a product context. Depending on the subject, this may or may not be important. If your customer searches without including the model, it’s very important.

In the above example, the searcher immediately sees that they have the right subject and with closer inspection now they can decide to click based on the specific model. I highly encourage you to also think before including a range of models in your title, e.g. “Water never gets hot in the 9000 series dishwashers.” Will the article still be returned if I searched on “9001” or “9999?”

If it really makes sense to include a series, this is where metadata can assist you. In addition to the SEO benefits previously mentioned, you can give your customer more information.
      For owners of MyBrand models 9001, 9002, and 9999, you can learn how to fix the hot water issue in this article. The solution is usually quite easy.

In this example, I've also added more information to reinforce with the Searcher that they’ve found the article they were looking for. I’ve included the brand, each model number, and a synonym for “fix” - “solution.”

Site browsability

Why is your sites browsability more important? Because if your customer or prospect comes to your site with a specific goal or task in mind and they can easily recognize what to do, they never have to search. Research has shown that customers will click many layers deep into your site if they can continue to follow the scent to their goal. Search is the bailout path when the scent is lost or there’s no obvious next step.

Keep in mind a few more things. We don’t need fancy, unique websites because our designer or CMO thinks that it looks great. You need a site that is comfortable and familiar, so your customer doesn’t have to spend time exploring and trying to figure out how your site is designed. Consider mimicking popular sites. Even though Amazon is terribly crowded, we use it so much, it’s very familiar. You want your site design to fall into the background so your customer or prospect can easily achieve their objective.

Chatbot

What is a chatbot? It’s a new version of your search engine. Most chatbots are using the same natural language processing that your search engine has that you’ve already invested a lot of time training and tuning it. The difference is the customers’ UI. First, because of the chat interface, your customer is more likely to use natural language INSTEAD of 1 - 3 keywords. Second, you have a familiar interface to ask clarifying questions. On Amazon, on the left rail, you would filter search results based on ratings, Prime, brands, etc. The chatbot will ask the same sort of questions to filter down and to get more clarity - the same details you need to provide a reasonable search result.

The chatbot also has the benefit where you can keep your customer in the same UI context and hand them off to an agent (assuming that’s what you want to do). If your goal is to engage a prospect, this a much better path than hoping the prospect will click on a Contact Us link.



Finally, we get to the end -- your site’s search engine. Should you have one? Absolutely! Should it work reasonably well for common searches? Of course. Just don’t get stuck in over-valuing it when there are so many other priorities. If your customer engagement on your search engine is high, likely you’re failing in one of the prior areas mentioned.

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