man on a laptop outside chewing on his finger
PHOTO: Renata Fraga

In the United States, 36 percent of people have a great deal of confidence in "higher education" but only 23 percent have confidence in "colleges and universities," according a Gallup study published in March 2018. The words you use to describe things can have a very significant impact on how they are perceived.

Years ago, we measured the impact of “deals” and “special offers” on the tourism sector. We found that special offers were significantly more attractive to people than deals.

Recently, we’ve measured the differing impact between “health” and “wellbeing”. For certain types of tasks there wasn’t much of a difference, but for many others there was a major difference. For our particular study, “wellbeing” performed significantly better.

According to Google AdWords:

  • 10 times more people search for “university” than search for “higher education.”
  • 10 times more people search for “deals” than for “special offers.”
  • 10 times more people search for “health” than for “wellbeing.”

Search is a partial picture of what really matters to people. Search words tend to be more functional, basic and shorter. There are a whole different set of words that are much more rarely — sometimes never — searched for, and that often mean much more to people. Yes, you need to focus on the words that will bring people to your website. But that’s just the start of the task. There are more important words that can have a critical influence on whether people complete their tasks on your website or app.

Why would somebody choose to do a Master’s degree? We found that a key question was: How will this Master’s advance my career? So, the phrase “Advance Your Career” became very important. But nobody would search for “advance my career.” In car buying, we found “affordability” to be an important concept. Affordability is related to, but not the same as, price.

Sometimes, the words searched are just a symptom of the true problem. On the Microsoft Excel website, many people were searching for “remove conditional formatting,” so they created a page for this task. However, no matter how much they edited the page, it always got poor reviews. Turns out that what people really wanted to do was use conditional formatting properly. They’d get stuck and then search for “remove conditional formatting.” The Excel team deleted the page about removing, and made sure that these searchers found the overall page about conditional formatting. Reviews improved substantially.

On the BBC website, they thought that the Blue Planet series was exceptionally popular. That was until they discovered that lots of the searches were not for the series at all. Rather, they were people wanting to find out about the solar system, who were searching with the word “planet.” (These people were trying to get into outer space and ending up in the sea.)

Words matter. They truly, truly, truly matter. And they matter most when it comes to menus and links. By far, the number one cause for failed task completion in our studies is confusing menus and links. Every time. Yes, every single time. Getting your words right in your menus and links will have a greater positive impact on customer experience than any other initiative you will undertake.