Search and findability issues are the number one complaint that I hear from customers who realize they need a content strategy. Well over 50% of customers from our content strategy practice start conversations by telling me that their search is “broken.” 

Once we start delving into their content ecosystem — the way they create, store, and manage their content — we usually find out that it isn’t the search that’s broken. It’s the content that needs to change. 

Let me explain. 

If your content ecosystem consists of unstructured, long-form content, chances are high that finding specific information in your output is like seeking the proverbial needle in a haystack.

While most unstructured authoring tools (including the ever-popular Microsoft Word) provide the ability to add metadata to your document, this metadata is stored at the document level. The metadata is not applied to smaller chunks of content within the larger document. Therefore, when people search for information and find the document, they must then comb through the entire document to find exactly the information they need.

If you ask them at that point to rate their search experience, they’re likely to give it a low rating.

But it wasn’t an issue with the search engine. In fact, the search returned the right document.

How Do I Fix The Search If It Isn’t Broken?

In order to “fix the search,” you need to change the way you create, store, and manage your content. You need to move to componentized, structured content. And you need to deliver that content in nimble, modular ways so that your customers can find and use it wherever they are.

What do people really want out of a search engine? Pertinent search results that take them precisely where they need to be — which is not, typically, a PDF

Pertinence 

When you work in a structured content ecosystem, your content is based on a single source of truth. You can reuse components wherever you need to convey the same information. There are no duplicates and no redundant “similar but not quite the same” pieces of content to clutter up the search results.

When someone searches for information, they are presented with pertinent search results, uncluttered by irrelevant or redundant entries. Users can get to the information they need very quickly.

Precision 

In a componentized environment, metadata can be applied at the component level, rather than the “full article” or “full FAQ” level. The search renders significantly more precision. Your searcher does not have to comb through your entire article to find the specific answer to their specific question. Metadata applied to components makes it faster to precisely locate the answer someone needs. 

PDFs

Search engines like Google and Bing cannot easily search within a PDF file to provide the exact part of the document that contains the information your customer needs. Instead, your customer has to download the entire PDF and go searching through it.

The “Find” capabilities within a PDF document are nowhere near as convenient or useful as a search engine. Your customers must then page through multiple instances of their search string. Worse yet, they may search for a string that doesn’t exist using those exact words. 

Searching in a PDF file is neither pertinent or precise. Instead, it is painful.

Fix the Content First

Now, we don’t hate PDFs. In fact, we offer our latest book The Personalization Paradox in PDF (in addition to ePub, Kindle/mobi, and print) and all of our eBooks in PDF. It’s a very useful format for long-form content. The problem with PDF is that companies still deliver too much content as PDF when they could much better serve their customers with nimble, modular content that meets the customers’ exact need of the moment. 

Using modular content, navigation elements such as tables of contents, mini-TOCs, previous/next buttons, breadcrumbs, links, related articles, and so on can provide more context if they want more information than the single component.

And now that they trust your search engine to deliver, they may just keep doing searches to find more content. 

Val Swisher
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