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Improve Website Search Functionality for Your Organization

Help visitors find the information they seek

Your website is one of your top communication tools, so it’s crucial to help visitors find the information they are seeking. Here are 10 principles to follow to enhance your organization’s on-site search. The most important thing about your website is not how pretty it looks or what your board president thinks. It’s making sure that search crawlers can find your content when humans are looking for it.

Having a well-executed, thought-out search experience once people get to your site is important, too, but it requires long-term commitment and investment.

In 2018, I oversaw the redesign and deployment of the American Society of Microbiology website, which attracts more than 1 million visitors a year. During the tail-end of the project, we faced what turned out to be the biggest technical obstacle of our careers: on-site search. On-site search is the tool users use to search your website—usually an out of the box solution, or a Solr-based search tool. However, we did get a few key components right while building our site, which can lay a great foundation for on-site search, including:

  • Structured content (we built out content models that our developers mimicked in the content management system)
  • A taxonomy/controlled vocabulary that served as the foundation for our tagging structure
  • Faceted search
  • The speed in which our search results load.

What we did not do was map out our on-site search experience. Sadly, the research-grounded approach we embraced for the website itself was not mirrored in our search thinking. We naively assumed search would work out of the box, not thinking about the organic evolution of the human search experience that had vastly changed in the last decade.

Getting Started with On-site Search

There are plenty of search tools out there, but some of the industry leaders include Elastic, Solr and Lucene. When selecting a search vendor, treat them like any other big vendor: use a matrix-grading system, ask what their value proposition is and understand what their strategic approach to search looks like. Also understand that it will be hard to get a real demo unless you get the vendors plugged into your systems so that they can actually index your content. That’s why it’s worth taking the extra steps to sweet talk your IT team into giving these vendors preliminary access so you can see how search will really work for you.

The 10 Rules of Search

If you’re at the beginning of a digital transformation, start thinking about your on-site search as well as search in general (immerse yourself in everything Google—they own 93 percent of the search market). Here are 10 major takeaways to tape to your monitor:

  1. Your association needs to understand that search is a product, not a project. Just like websites, professional development, or journals, search is an ongoing commitment that requires staffing and budget.
  2. Use knowledge graphs. Knowledge graphs not only map out everything you’re working with, but names the relationships between them.
  3. Search is based on what users want to read or do, not whatever content you feel like writing.
  4. Start with the why: Why are we publishing it? Why would a user spend time on this page? Why are we asking users to read something?
  5. If you’re taking search seriously, you’ll need at least one full-time employee, the budget for a vendor or even diving the work among existing employees, complete with an investment in their skills and knowledge around search, to handle it.
  6. Be honest. Is it worth investing in search? Is it a good or bad thing if users are spending more time in search? At ASM, only 2 to 3 percent of our site users take advantage of our on-site search. Get your hands on your organization’s data to help inform your decision.
  7. Think of search as a thing, not a string. Ten years ago, search engine results pages spit back a string of results based on your search term query. Today, search serves you up an entire experience: for example, when you search for a movie, Google knows you want to go to a movie, not just read about it.  This search experience bubbles up from Google’s knowledge graph.
  8. Search Experience Optimization: live it, learn it, love it.
  9. Look at metrics and reports. What articles are performing well? Which ones are taking up precious real estate but not getting the eyeballs? Survey your users on their search experience with you.
  10. Use diagrams to educate your stakeholders. They need to understand what search is in order to fund it.

About the author:
Courtney Reyers is the enterprise digital strategist for the American Society for Microbiology in Washington, DC, and a member of ASAE’s Communications Professional Advisory Council. This article originally appeared on ASAE's Center for Research. OSAE thanks ASAE for their commitment to strengthening the association community and its members' business acumen. Please select this link to read the article as it originally appeared on ASAE's website.

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