Many people haven't mastered the skill of using search engines.
Leading user experience consultancy the Nielsen Norman group talked about this topic a couple years ago when they published a blog post which concluded that most people are not good at solving problems through search.
That observation wasn’t much different from what the group found two years before, where they noticed that people rarely change search strategies, even if their current approach is failing.
Their assessment was grim. In the post published most recently, Jakob Nielsen wrote: “A few years ago, I characterized users' research skills as ‘incompetent,’ and they’ve only gotten worse over time. ‘Pathetic’ and ‘useless’ are words that come to mind after this year's user testing.”
Search can feel like this.
Four Quadrants of User Expertise
Let’s take a step back from thinking about skill limitations and consider the whole spectrum of user expertise. According to the book Designing the Search Experience: The Information Architecture of Discovery, user expertise can be broken up into two main categories.
The first category is subject (or domain) expertise. Users who are subject experts know a lot about the topic about which they’re searching (including rather detailed terminology specific to the subject). The second category is technical expertise. This type of expertise is more about users’ proficiency at using relevant technologies, like computers and search engines.
Combined together, we get these quadrants.
- Double novices
- Domain novice / technical experts
- Domain expert / technical novices
- Double experts
An example of a double novice might be someone who rarely uses computers - she doesn’t even own one - and who knows very little about gardening. When a pesky plant starts taking over her yard, she borrows her neighbor's computer to figure out what it is.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, a double expert might be a professional photographer who is a bit of technophile and who can navigate search engines with ease. She's in the market for a new camera, so she sits down to do some research before making a purchase.
A middle ground exists between experts and novices, but establishing these quadrants helps set a foundation for thinking about where your audience stands.
User Expertise and Search Behavior
Figuring out the obstacles an audience faces in search is a huge task that transcends multiple disciplines, but we can still take steps as marketers to make search a bit easier and increase the chance our digital properties get found.
Here are some points that struck me when reading Designing the Search Experience:
Technical novices tend to go back to search pages more than experts. People who aren’t proficient at technology tend to be reluctant to stray far from the safety of their starting point, especially if they’re double novices. Rather than digging deeper into a site, double novices prefer to reformulate queries (often small changes) in the search box.
Technical novices who are subject experts tend to return to search results, too. However, their subject knowledge makes it easier to formulate specific queries and assess content relevancy, which can expedite the search process.
I think these observations struck me because they reinforce how important it is for digital marketers to make search features our ally, especially when targeting an audience that may not be skilled at using search engines for research and, as a result, are less inclinded to stray far from the search engine results page (SERP).
Transition from the SERPs to Your Site
Search isn’t easy. One way we can make search more straightforward is to take control of how our landing pages are presented in the SERPs. Read on for a six examples of how digital marketers can make it a little easier for an audience to find what they need.
1. Emphasize the importance of descriptive, accurate titles.
Some usability experts talk about the process of search in terms of information foraging. Conceptualized this way, our audience is on the hunt for information. To figure out if they’re on the right track, they pick up on certain cues (otherwise known as an “information scent”).
Titles play an important role in conveying whether a result is relevant to someone’s needs. As digital marketers, we’re in a solid position to eliminate inaccurate, spammy titles that have been constructed exclusively for rankings. Instead, we can take steps to create title tags within the parameters of Google’s new title tag guidelines that contribute to a straightforward, successful search.
2. Ensure that meta descriptions are compelling.
Meta descriptions are one of the first chances you have to establish the relevancy and value of a page to an audience. To complicate matters, they are sometimes truncated in results. We can help make sure these short, but vital, descriptions get the attention they deserve.
3. Structure websites so that relevant links can appear as sitelinks.
Since a percentage of people who use search engines are reluctant to stray from the search page, it’s helpful to have relevant links accessible directly on the page, especially for queries that may be exploratory in nature.
Having a strong hierarchy coupled with a similarly logical link structure makes it more likely that Google will present compelling sitelinks when the query calls for it.
Example of Sitelinks at Moz.com
In other cases, relevant links may appear beneath the meta description. Take this example from the Information Architecture Institute. I searched for “learn information architecture” and I got a link to the most relevant URL, with four other relevant options below.
These features are useful for users of all expertise levels, but I think it could be especially helpful for technical novices who are reluctant to dig into a site through an organic landing page.
4. Consider allowing your audience to search within your site from the SERPs.
Recently Google rolled out a sitelinks search box, which lets people search within a site directly from the SERPs. Not all websites can implement it yet, and it doesn’t appear for all searches. According to Google, it “appears only for navigational queries and when relevant for users.”
Example of Sitelinks Search Box
Moz recently released a helpful post on this new feature: Google's Sitelinks Search Box: What You Need to Know. The general consensus seems to be that sitelink search boxes may provide a better user experience, but you should not expect to see an sharp increase in organic sessions due to the feature.
It’s still early days for the sitelinks search box, though. These findings may change. If you’d like to read about the topic straight from Google, check out Google’s instructions about how it can be set up.
5. Reflect the website hierarchy through breadcrumbs.
Having hierarchal breadcrumbs on the site and in the SERPs help convey how a page sits in the relation to the rest of a website.
Breadcrumbs in the SERPs for Keyphraseology.com
Sometimes companies overlook the importance of website structure. As digital marketers, we can help reinforce the idea that your audience needs to be able to easily find pages in order for conversions to occur. Having a clear structure in place (starting from rich snippets in the SERPs) makes the process easier.
6. Think about bots and your audience when targeting keywords.
Leaning on tactics from the past, some websites still try to target particular keywords aggressively. In terms of SEO, that's not advised. Using varied language is much better than taking a repetitious approach which can quickly snowball into spammy keyword stuffing.
“This… may be what I’m looking for?”
From a user perspective, hyper-focused keyword targeting could get in the way of the search journey. For example, subject novices may believe that a page is not relevant because the language is so restricted that it doesn’t overlap with their limited understanding of a topic. Consider all forms of expression that may be relevant to your audience.
With one foot in traditional marketing practices and another in the ever-shifting world of search technologies, digital marketers are uniquely suited to help remove at least some of the obstacles that could get in the way of an audience’s search experience. Do you have any ideas about how digital marketers can help make search easier?