Searching with Mr. X

How often do you use search engines? Most of you will do so at least once per day, and some will be lucky enough to do so perhaps dozens of times before morning coffee.

Some of the search engines you use will be the 800-pound gorillas of the searching market, such as Yahoo, Google and AltaVista, while others will be site-specific.

It's the site-specific ones I want to talk about. First, let me ask if you have one on your Web site? You do? Great. What for?

Now you might say something like, "So people can find stuff." If you appended "duh" to your answer, you can leave this column straightaway and go stand in the corner until you think you can act politely.

Really, readers these days: no restraint and far too much back talk . . . saying things like, "Look at me, I know my ARP from my MBONE" . . . I don't know . . .

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes . . .

So my good friend who shall remain nameless and we shall call Mr. X but is, in reality, Jim Sterne of Target Marketing, told me he had a problem with getting a search engine to work on his site. This was an ASP service that had previously worked, but for some reason on this day wasn't working properly for a trivial reason not worth going into. After looking at the problem and concluding that his HTML coding was correct and that his trouble was with the ASP, the issue repaired itself within an hour.

I then asked Jim, er, sorry, Mr. X, why he wanted to have a search engine. He was nice enough to not reply "duh," and said he wanted people to be able to find stuff on his site. Now Mr. X has quite a bit of stuff on his site about online marketing and related topics, but my question was, what was it the site visitors wanted to find?

He checked, and this is the list of queries starting with the least popular: marketing; target marketing; targeting; sport; 'Net-based stock trading; ABCs of marketing; target affinity; marketing segmentation; Web marketing; cigarette advertising; soccer; total available market; Nike; track and field; clear message; business plan; Club Med; response cards; marketing magazines and advertising technique.

The obvious searches such as "marketing" would yield far too generic results to be really useful, while the people who were looking for "sport," "'Net-based stock trading," "soccer" and "Club Med" were obviously on a different planet.

I contend that these peculiar searches are symptomatic of visitor behavior on most Web sites that offer local searching because the majority of people don't know what they want to know about and where they should look for it.

Sure, where you have a ton of varied content local searching may make sense, but usually there's a more important objective: You want to transfer your sales and marketing messages to the person looking at your site. You want to give them access to something that supports your view of the world, and a well-indexed site is, in my opinion, better than a search tool.

If you think visitors might be looking for "green, left-handed widgets" on your site, then give them an index that makes those terms findable. For example, a hierarchical index that included "widgets:"color:"green" and "widgets:handedness:left" would be far more useful than a search engine that returns 256 hits, none of which is relevant because your viisitor misspelled "widget."

And if there's one thing that overwhelms people on the Internet, it's too much data. How often have you heard people say that the 'Net is too big, and it is too hard to find what they are looking for?

Don't make your Web site just another data swamp if you want to get your message across. Mr. X has since done away with his search engine.

This story, "Searching with Mr. X" was originally published by Network World.

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