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The Changing Nature of Search Behavior

Search is just one part of the jigsaw puzzle of customer behavior. It needs to be considered in the context of the customer’s task.

Since 2005, according to Google Trends, there has been a consistent decline in searches for “cheap flights.” The same decline is in evidence for “cheap hotels.” It’s a long time since I searched on Google for cheap hotels or flights. Does that mean I’m no longer cheap? Well, no. I use Kayak and Hotels.com all the time.

There is a similar decline in searches for “search engines.” People have found their search engine of choice and now they use it and don’t need to search for it. Just because something is no longer being searched for as much as it used to be doesn’t mean that its importance to the customer has declined.

The better the site navigation the more likely it will be used for top tasks and search will be used for tiny or exceptional tasks. This means that many customer top tasks may not appear in search stats. Thus, top searches do not necessarily equate to top tasks.

People like to navigate more than they like to search. Yes, people start many tasks at Google or Bing but once they arrive at a website they generally prefer navigation. That’s what we’ve seen after observing customer web behavior over the years. If you want to download software and you see a link called “Download” it’s easier to click on it than it is to search. Searching is hard work. You have to frame the search phrase. You have to type it in, and then browse through the results and select something.

There is a complex relationship between navigation and search. A well designed navigation makes search more efficient because, by definition, it will use intuitive words (like “Download Software”), which are the type of words that people search with. So when people search they are more likely to find the right page because the right page has been intuitively named.

The BBC intranet used to analyze its top searches and then place the Top 10 on the homepage and other relevant pages. Once people could now easily find this Top 10, they stopped searching for them. So, over time, a new top 10 search queries emerged. And this caused a vicious circle because once they replaced the "old" Top 10 with the "new" Top 10, the old top 10 started getting searched for again.

Most site search is like a poisoned well: nobody wants to use it if they can at all avoid it because it’s just so bad. Thus, much site search statistics (particularly on intranets) are quite misleading. They give you a very skewed picture of what people need to search for, because people are only using them as an act of desperation.

Understanding search is much more a psychological question than a technological one, but most managers still see search as something “technical.” Who’s the most suitable type of person to manage search / findability? A good old traditional editor who constantly thinks about what their customers want and the words that are important to them. Search is the management and science of words. 

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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