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It’s not your search engine, it’s you(r improvement program)

Back in April I wrote about the two things you can do to improve your site search. Those are two things among many options you have available to you as you seek to keep visitors on your website and help them achieve the task at hand. Of course, one thing you can consider is a search engine replacement. Better technology has an allure. However, it shouldn’t be the place you start.

How does your search customer experience treat your visitors?

This morning I had to log on to United Airlines’ website to request a refund for accommodations from a recent overnight flight delay. Surprisingly there is no form specifically for this type of request on the site. I struggled with a bit of cognitive dissonance on how to fit my request in the standard fields where one might complain about rude service or a poorly maintained restroom.

Needless to say, I didn’t come away from the experience with a favorable opinion of United or its process. This at a time when they should be trying to take a bad situation (my original overnight delay) and turn it into something awesome. It didn’t help that there were errors in their login process as well as an inexplicable refusal to load a 900KB JPG file that was both less than 1MB size limit and one of the approved file types.

Am I less likely to return to united.com because of this bad experience? No, I’ll be back. Fortunately for United, oligopolists can get away with poor service. Can you?

All Business On Vacation

Last week I left my family behind and took my 82 year-old father and his brother to Yellowstone National Park. This was a bucket list item for both of them and due to their declining health, it may have been our our last opportunity for such an adventure.

There are tons of details that need to be sorted out when traveling with someone who has special needs. In this case, it was two gents who have trouble walking long distances. This meant that during the air travel portion of the week, I was arranging for wheelchairs and negotiating the hotels of Yellowstone — which are preciously short on handicapped rooms and other accommodations for the elderly in lodgings — many of which were built long before ADA and not since updated.

I’m not going to go on my “We need to invest in our public spaces” rant. Suffice to say, we have these beautiful places and we make it difficult for folks to visit them in the name of preserving a quaint vision of the distant past. Upgrade, folks. Upgrade.

Being on vacation, I try to swivel my brain to things other than my day-to-day grind. Of course, that business function gets a little bored so it eventually looks for opportunity for improvement in all the processes that it encounters. So here’s my list from my current trip. It’s an age-old problem.

How long will business models based on personal data survive?

I don’t use Snapchat mostly because nobody I know uses it. I’m not the target demographic, apparently. But that doesn’t keep me from talking about how much I dislike the user experience. I know that when I register such complaints I probably sound like a codger who wants his buggy whip back. But even so, I never really “got” why someone would build a platform where content is ephemeral. Isn’t the whole point of social platforms to catalog our lives? Maybe I’m missing something.

Google: Frenemy?

Can you imagine not caring about how you rank in Google? Maybe someday something will replace Google as what is arguably “the” most important source of top-of-funnel traffic but today much of your marketing activity is rightly focused on SEO and SEM. Having a strong Google game is critical to many companies success. But is Google your friend? I’d argue that Google as Frenemy is the proper way to look at the relationship; Google is critically important at some points but dangerous to rely upon later. Let me explain.

The People Element: How SEO and Site Search Come Together

Today we’re talking about a much-neglected aspect of search: how people work together. Recently I was on a Google hangout sponsored by the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization (SEMPO). The focus of the conversation was making site search more effective. As you’d expect, when you get a lot of those professionals together, we talked a lot about technology, and tools, and techniques — but didn’t spend a lot of time on one element that I think is really important, and that is the people element. For mid-market and large enterprise companies, that’s often an organizational discussion.

There are generally four main components to search within large companies. There’s folks doing external search, that’s the organic and paid element. Then there are folks doing website search, that’s the business perspective. Add to that two technology teams, supporting each of them. As many of you know, search internally and search externally are very close cousins. Usually the things that you do to make internal search better, make external search better.

So what I want to encourage organizations to do is create the management systems that more tightly integrate all four of these elements. Bring the two business teams together, the ones focused on internal and external search, as well as the IT teams together. Even if for no other reason than, say, content optimization — low hanging fruit. Internal teams are going to want better product content so that they can get better relevancy rankings. External teams are going to benefit from that as well because better product content is going to rank better in Google. There are lots of opportunities, and content is just one example.

What’s important is creating the right environment for that kind of collaboration. Creating the right management system is an important critical success factor for most teams working on search both internally and externally at large companies. Best of luck on improving your search results!

What’s your total cost of value?

Total Cost of Value

Last week I was working on a proposal for a client. We understand the value we need to deliver and we’re going to bring in some external tech to deliver a complete solution. There are several options for the client to chose. What’s interesting about this part of the process is that my role has gone from seller to buyer. Any good seller looks at the deal from buyer’s perspective. But when you actually become the buyer, your vision is narrowed even further. You focus not only on what it’s going to cost but what is it going to give. It strikes me that when looking at total cost, what’s really important is understanding the total cost of value. What does it take not just to get and operate the tech, but to get the total value that can be extracted?

The Myth of Automation: Humans in the Loop

One of the things our clients have been asking for is automation tools that help make search better. This is a great idea. For example, there’s no reason that search success metrics can’t be embedded in algorithms that A/B test improvements and automatically kick in if the testing demonstrates improvements. But automation alone isn’t the answer. Humans need to be in the loop a critical parts of the process to ensure that the automation is achieving the right goals. The greatest myth of search automation is that is eliminates the need for people to be involved.

Two Things You Can Do Now to Improve Your Site Search

Search is one of the most critical customer experiences on your website. Search is also the customer experience that likely gets little attention in your management system and at budget time. Sometimes this is because site search improvement seems like a dark art. However, if you’re just getting started with search improvement (and many of you are, you just may not know it) there are two things you can do now to make your customer experience better.

Lessons from Folkston, GA

I’m just back from a week in southern Georgia (the state, not the country) fishing with a few buddies. For the past few years, I’ve had a side hustle writing for fly fishing magazines about fly fishing in places where fly anglers don’t normally lurk — most fly anglers go after trout — and fish for species that are not normally pursued. This past week we fished the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and pursued Bowfin (called Mudfish locally) and we caught a bunch. The weather was perfect.

It was a great week. While on vacation it always takes a while to shut off my work brain so I do have two lessons from the road.

Go Deeper

When the VRBO listing says “Only a short walk to the train viewing platform” we mused about the hobby that is Trainspotting. Apparently, trainspotters come to Folkston and stay at the charming little house we were renting. We should have looked into this further. We didn’t.

When we arrived in town, we crossed the two tracks that run the length of downtown Folkston.  Our house was about a hundred yards from the tracks. Taped to the refrigerator was a sample list of the trains that come through Folkston daily. The list contained 40+ trains. We then Googled “Folkston Trains” and learned that Folkston is not just a train viewing locale. It is one of the best train viewing locales in the US. Almost all the trains that go in and out of Florida must go through Folkston. They even refer to this area as the Folkston Funnel.

We didn’t count the trains. There were a lot of them. Running 24 hours a day. It seems like a particularly busy time of day is between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. and then again in the evening. And then again in the early morning. Really, all day long, trains, trains, trains.

If we had gone deeper upon discovering that there was a train viewing platform we might have chosen a different location for our lodgings and would have slept better. We didn’t.

Fun Fact: At every railroad crossing a train must blow its horn. The pattern is: two longs blasts — one short blast — one long blast.

Fun Fact: Regulations say that a train horn must be 110 decibels. That’s rock concert loud.

Fun Fact: At 160 decibels your eardrums burst. The threshold for being driven insane by train horns is much lower.

Be where your customers are

This is a town that has little industry outside logging and only a handful of trainspotters making up the tourist base so there aren’t a lot of dining choices for tourists. When you look on Yelp, you find a handful of fast food restaurants mentioned and a few local eateries. We worked our way through these and found that Jalen’s BBQ, a dodgy looking place, served excellent barbecue and were mystified why the top rated restaurant in town was, in fact, the top rated restaurant in town. It wasn’t very good.

Tuesday evening when we stopped by the grocery store to replenish our supplies, we noticed the Brickhouse Restaurant a few doors down. It wasn’t on Yelp (it is now, I added it). It’s a breakfast/lunch place so we stopped there the next morning. This restaurant turns out to be the best one in town. Great staff. Excellent cooking.

While the Brickhouse is well known to locals, you would pass it by in this electronic age when increasingly travelers are using apps to find dining options in unfamiliar places. Is your business listed where your customers are looking? If not, get going. You need to be where your customers are.

I’m back

This morning I dig out of a stuffed inbox. The good news is that I slept most of the day yesterday recovering from the sleep deficit I gathered in Folkston. I’m energized to see what the week brings and marvel at the quiet.