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.
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?
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.
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. It’s not uncommon that we see people measuring site search wrong. 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.
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.
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. For us, that’s paying attention to site search when your visitors make use of it. You need to be where your customers are.
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. Want to talk more about your customer experience? Connect with us.
If you close your eyes and imagine what a search engine results page looks like you probably see something that looks a lot like Google’s search results. You see a list of titles and text snippets that potentially describe the thing that you’re looking for. That’s what Google and Amazon and practically every other site has trained us to see. What few people see is a grid of tiles. This is probably a good thing as there are few use cases that tiled search results are effective.
Autocomplete is the bane of any message sent from a mobile device. However, one place where autocomplete shines is on search engines. Autocomplete, also called autosuggest or incremental search, improves the user experience by making it easier to execute searches by suggesting words and phrases that a matching algorithm determines are appropriate based upon the characters entered into a search box. Google has had autocomplete in their search box since 2008. Following in their footsteps, any company that values its customer experience has implemented autosuggestion in their site search. But there’s a new trend in the type-ahead game that we’ve begun to see cropping up on more and more company websites: Instant Search.
A/B Testing Site Search
A few weeks ago I participated in a webinar over on Biznology. I shared five strategies for improving site search using A/B testing. Long a part of the digital marketer’s toolkit, A/B testing has relevance for search analysts as well. Using these methods you can test new settings against a portion of your live traffic without risking tanking things altogether. Once the new settings have proven themselves, you can deploy them to the primary search engine.
Most companies don’t measure site search well. They rely upon out of the box measurements that measure activity instead of outcomes. Nowhere is this problem acuter than when you move from one search engine to another.
- How do you exceed customer expectations if you don’t have an effective baseline?
- How do you know you’ve done the migration well if you don’t measure the gap before and after?
- How do you ensure improvements in content and algorithms are effective?
A/B testing of the search engines is the answer. Check out the webinar. You can also read a short version I did in a blog post a few weeks ago.
Don’t let bad onsite search catch you by surprise – fix it now.
The biggest challenge in corporate IT is managing the never-ending list of equally important priorities. This requires what I’ve always referred to as “ruthless prioritization”; yes there are a lot of important things to do but you can only work on the most critical. More often than not, important stuff like site search gets left behind.
So what do you do when that important stuff all of a sudden becomes critical? You sweat and you work the problem. It’s easier if you have the right data.
If you’re working to improve your site search it’s sometimes difficult to know what’s working and what’s not. You do a bunch of stuff — modify settings, change the user experience — and measure the outcome. If search success is better, then you pat yourself on the back. Your search improvement efforts worked! But did they? Search is really dynamic. If nothing else changes, you know that the content changes constantly. So was it a content change that improved your search success or something you did to the engine? Fortunately, you can take a lesson from marketing to assess the effect of changes. You can A/B test your search engine.