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Search is the future, deal with it

February 12, 2010

“Search is dead,” said an esteemed colleague in a recent conference call to the stunned silence of the audience. The call was about how to improve search results for the users of our site—

To that audience, such a statement was meant to provoke a spirited retort. I took the bait, and pressed her on this statement, because it is contrary to all the evidence we have been gathering. Namely, search is the primary way people find content on our site, and its use continues to grow among our audience as search engines and our content producers do a better job of targeting Web audiences with relevant content.

Her response to my retort was something I had heard since my years as editor of ComputerUser a decade ago: “Our goal should be to make the navigation so easy, people won’t want to use search,” she said. If we force them to search, we have failed.”

No offense to my colleague, but this is hogwash. Unless you have a broken site search experience, the majority of users prefer search to navigation. Even if you have a broken site search, users will typically go to Google and use it to find the content on your site before they waste time trying to navigate through your content labyrinth. Not all users, but a large percentage of users prefer search—it is the fastest way to find information. By all means, make your site easy to use. But the best way to make your site more usable is to make your content easier to find through search.

This myth is not isolated to my colleague or my company. In a recent article in Business Week (January 25, 2010, “Apple vs. Google”), Ovum Analyst Jonathan Yarmis said, “[Google CEO] Eric Schmidt has said [about the Android mobile OS] that the search problem is 99% solved, but, boy, is that self-serving. The fact that I have to go to a search bar at all is a sign of failure.”

It seems to me that mobile users will be more inclined to use search than other users. The more time-challenged users are, the more they will want to use search to find information. And as mobile apps development continues to explode, there’s just no way on a hand-held device to manage all the apps users want at their fingertips, except to enable them to easily search for them.

My company has a vast repository of information—some 4 million pages at last count. The larger and more complex the repository, the harder it is to design easy navigation systems for users, and the more important search becomes for them. But small business audiences also tend prefer search to navigation by virtue of their Web use outside of particular sites. Also, the smaller a site, the more empty results users will get with site search. So users will tend to go to Google or Bing to search for your SMB content. If you aren’t there when they search for stuff that’s relevant to your offerings, you just lost a potential customer.

Bottom line: Consider this myth busted. There are excellent resources all over the Web on how to make your content easier to find through search, including our book.

James Mathewson is editor in chief of His forthcoming book, “Audience, Relevance and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content,” is available for prepurchase at James Mathewson

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