When search fails me, the reasons may be hard to discover as a user but once on the inside of an enterprise I can learn a lot about what is going on. After listening to scores of business case studies, personal experiences and reading about rampant dissatisfaction with search it is discouraging to recognize the simple reasons for most negative outcomes.

Consider this scenario. I was attempting to find the address of the office of a major global platform vendor (one of the largest) that sells an entire suite of enterprise search and content management software products. One can usually find business location information from links on the home page of any corporate Web site or at least from the site representing the division one is visiting. But there was no such link for this corporate site. Then using the “search” box and later the “advanced search” option, trying a dozen variations of the division name, town in which the office is located, and product names I struck out on every query. All paths lead to a page with a single corporate address, or a couple of other remote addresses, and links to web pages that contained no address. Even those pages with addresses had no link to directions. I followed up with queries using Google and these got me back to the same dead-ends. Finally, I found the address through various online non-specific business directories.

This experience lead to a couple of conclusions about why my search failed: 1. The content does not exist; there is no such listing of locations. 2. The search engine is not properly tuned or metadata is not supplied with labels such as “locations,” “directions,” “business offices,” etc. The immediate solution for this case is to ensure that someone with practical business sense and usability competency has ownership of the overall web site experience to make sure that essential company data is available and easy to find. Or, if the company has made a conscious decision not to publish that information, at the least they should have a page stating the alternative for potential visitors as to how they can find their destination or to what office they can direct postal mail.

I had to two reasons for needing this information; one was a visit to an individual who was not available to give me the address in time to reach the office, and the second was a personal follow-up letter after someone from the company had been a speaker at an event I chaired. As things stand, I have been left with personal skepticism about the commitment of this company to build, produce and actually use content management or search products that will be truly responsive to needs of their potential buyers. When you don’t or can’t showcase your products, I question “why.” This is not a technology problem; it is a human factors and human resource allocation problem.

This brings me to some search fundamentals:

  • No content – If content that customers or employees expect to find is not included in explicit directives to the search engine for the repositories to be crawled and indexed, it will never be found.
  • No metadata – Any content lacking explicit language likely to be used by a searcher will probably not be found if it also lacks sufficient metadata.
  • Poor indexing or search rule base – If the content being searched is business documents without many unique contextual “hooks,” such as product names, technical terminology or topics of narrow interest, the search engine being used must be “smart” enough to glean the intent of the searcher from the context of query. In my case, I supplied a half a dozen terms to layer the context, tried them in different combinations, with and without quotations around phrases, but nothing worked.

Conclusion, if you really don’t want searchers to find what they want to find, it is not hard at all to compromise findability. I will not arrive at my destination and you won’t get any first class letters from me.

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