The other night I sat down to pay some bills online. 

You'd think companies would have a vested interest in making this function as easy as possible. 

But I ran into such a poor implementation of search that I have to speak out. I’m sorry to call out the organization: the California affiliate of the AAA. I’ve been a member for over 30 years, and a customer for at least a dozen or more. They provide great products and services; but they don’t know search.

How Badly Do You Want to Pay Your Bill?

I tried site navigation first. 

I logged in (‘My Account’) and went immediately to the search box. While I’m no web usability expert, I know what I like and the site's navigation is not what I’d call helpful. 

Having lost faith in the site links, I typed "pay my bill" in the search box. 

As I typed, I got some help:

pay my bill or will?

Well, no, I don't need help with my will, but just for fun, I clicked on it. Know what? No hits. It suggested I search for a term that had absolutely no hits.

I tried again.

bad search

It really wanted to know about my will, but at least three results looked promising. I clicked “pay bill.” 

This is what I got:

screen capture of search results

Can you see the problem? While each of those pages discussed the consequences of not paying a bill on time — and one even had both words — I still wasn't making any progress in paying my insurance.

One last try:

Learning Opportunities

poor search

Right about now, I noticed the “hit count” displayed in very small, light grey font on the right. But at this point I wasn’t even trying to pay my bill — I was having fun playing with the search. With a little more digging, I discovered not only that its suggestions were not tied to any actual documents, but that it’s possible to click to a suggested term and get no results.

I was seriously underwhelmed. 

Then the website crashed, advising me to email “[email protected]” to report the time and what I was doing when it crashed.  

I’ll pay my bill the old fashioned way — directly from the bill pay service my bank offers.

Alternate Universe

Anyone who has read this far must be among the few, the select, for whom search is important — and you’re willing to do something about it when it's not. So what could the California AAA do?

First, it needs to watch its search engine. I’ve written before that search is like your teenaged kid: you know what he says he’s doing, but you never know for sure.  Even without monitoring tools built into a search platform, I’m confident there is a log file somewhere that a competent searchmaster could monitor. (And why are you still using a search platform that doesn’t have those reports as a standard feature?) 

Next: if your platform doesn’t have accurate auto-suggest, turn it off, or switch to a platform that does. Google has set user expectations very high, and your internal and web facing search had better live up to those expectations.

You should also use synonyms so users find the best content for their queries — or at least for a majority of the common ones. (Do you know what queries on your search platform resulted in no hits? Why not?)

Finally: get professional help. There are so many other search usability and implementation options that without a full time searchmaster, you’re probably losing business — or wasting your knowledge workers’ time — either of which is costing you money. You owe it to your users to at least get a second option. And it’ll likely cost less than the business lost due to poor search.

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