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Finding the Things We Don't Search For

Search behavior is one window into the customer’s mind. But there are many others.

When we did a top tasks study of MBA students we found that their top task revolved around asking this question: “How does your MBA program help me advance my career?” The final three words — advance my career — were very powerful when put into a link. But these words never came up in search statistics. You see, there are many tasks that people either don’t search for or only search indirectly for.

Google know this and for several years now have been trying to understand the tasks that just don’t appear in search data. “Google could extend its reach by finding ways to deliver information that people don’t currently use a search engine to find,” Tom Simonite wrote for MIT Technology Review in 2012.

Mobile devices are making it easier to understand what these hidden tasks are because they understand more about your context. Let’s say you’re at a restaurant in the evening and you search for a particular film. Well, the search engine could intuit that you’re interested in seeing that film that evening. It could tell you when the next showing is, where the nearest cinema is and how to get there, and even how to book.

When we did a top tasks study for a satnav / GPS car system, the top task was “automatically and quickly recalculates my route if I miss a turn.” Not exactly something you’d put into a search engine. And when we did a top tasks study for a car company the top task was “affordability.”

We have found that there are a set of search words that bring you to a website, and then there are what we call “carewords” that bring you through the website to complete your task. Understanding both sets of words and how they interact is very important if you want to maximize task completion.

Sometimes, the interaction is very subtle. People tend to search for “deals” when it comes to travel, but we found that when they were at travel websites, they preferred links containing the words “special offers.” Even though they had searched for “deals” they didn’t like to see that word on the webpage. The same goes for “cheap hotels.” You might search for them but that doesn’t mean you want to land on a webpage that says “Welcome to our dirt cheap hotel!”

Sometimes, search words give you a hint of what people want. Many people were searching for “remove conditional formatting” on the Microsoft Excel page. So the Excel team created a page for that task, but dissatisfaction was always high no matter how often they revised the page.

They finally discovered that the real task was to format properly in Excel. People had done formatting and made a mess of it. They searched for instructions on removing the formatting but what they really wanted was instructions on how to do some proper formatting. So the Excel team deleted the "remove conditional formatting" page. They pointed searchers for that phrase to another page that contained all the relevant information connected with formatting. Satisfaction went up.

About the Author

Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994. His latest book is titled The Stranger's Long Neck: How to Deliver What Your Customers Really Want Online.

 
 
 
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