One of the myths we cherish in providing web content to customers, employees or constituents is that our readers will consume that content the way we intend them to consume it – under conditions and in a context that we control. It’s rarely that simple or predictable.
Your site has a carefully thought-out structure. Someone in your organization invested time in designing the site around an idealized user experience, in which an individual navigating the site for the first time will take in your organization’s artfully constructed story in an elaborately mapped sequence.
He or she will discover the most relevant content and tools, and you anticipate the reader’s bookmarking the features he expects to be of continuing use. Future visits will be relatively brief, and directed toward those high-value, bookmarked elements. All the elegant structure that led your reader to this moment of belonging – of bonding with your corporate narrative – will have done its work.
The truth is, your user’s experience with your content rarely plays out the way your site designer explained it when she unveiled the wireframes. The reality of content consumption is far more haphazard. I’m not suggesting those mega-menus and carousels and all the other navigational eye candy your designer provided weren’t worth the investment. I am suggesting that you steel yourself for the likelihood that a healthy proportion of your content’s consumers will never have an occasion to use them. They may never see your home page at all.
Increasingly, the first place a reader will encounter your content is not in a menu of your devising. It’s in a search result page, and the experience isn’t yours – it’s Google’s or Bing’s.
Personal experience in the Knowledge Management field has reinforced this trend in my own practice. For example, while one multinational I worked with was developing a knowledge management practice in its global legal affairs function, it was simultaneously shrinking its corporate law library down to bare bones, eliminating a once-highly-valued service through which the library provided custom searches of legal databases to its in-house attorneys.
The downgrading of this service came in part because the company was getting similar search services from its outside counsel – but more importantly, executives in the General Counsel’s office realized that when lawyers needed information, they had stopped asking for help. They just Googled whatever they needed, and were quite satisfied with the results.
I’ve given more than two decades of my career to a very specific kind of content consumption experience: The use of online “knowledge bases” to provide guidance and support for users of various products and services. It’s one of the most widely adopted applications of KM.
Recently, I’ve been observing the behavior of people seeking support for various products they use, at home and in their workplaces – and my own behavior as well. I conducted an informal survey in January 2014, looking for what I suspected was a shift in reliance on vendor-sourced support content. I posed the following question:
“If you have a technical question or problem with a product you use (anything from an electric toothbrush to long term care insurance), what medium do you choose most often (if you have a choice) for getting help?”
I provided the following choices:
- Call the provider (voice — phone or VOIP)
- Ask someone you know
- Use an online “knowledge base”
- Figure it out on your own
- Ask friends on Facebook/LinkedIn/Twitter (or other social media)
- Google (or Bing) it
- Go to the provider web site and search
- Search YouTube
- Post a question in an online “community” or forum
- Other (please specify)
I provided a space for comments on the respondent’s choice. Then I offered the same choices as responses to a second question:
“How would you have answered Question 1 two years ago?”
The survey was informal and not terribly scientific. I posted invitations to participate on various forums, groups and fan pages on LinkedIn.com and Facebook, and I emailed to a large list I’ve gathered over a period of years. The results are based on 96 responses. Frankly, I expected my own list to bias the responses a bit toward enthusiasm for online knowledge bases.
The results looked like this:
About one in five respondents indicated they would be inclined to go to the vendor’s web site and look for support content. More than 61% said they’d go straight to Google – in effect, to see what knowledge was out there, from the vendor but also from among impartial experts and their peers, bypassing the vendor’s choreographed navigation entirely.
One respondent did opt for posting a question in an online support community, which might well be hosted by the vendor. The survey offered the choice of consulting an online knowledge base; no one selected it.
Forcing the respondent to make a single choice is something of an oversimplification, of course. “I usually first search the Internet using Google,” one user commented. “Sometimes I’ll start with the provider website, but if the answer is there…it should come up in the Google site. I may go to the provider site and see if they have online help (ie: enter into a chat or video session with a support person). If not, that’s when I ask other people I know who may know (family, friends, co-workers).”
Several respondents specified that, while they start with Google, they generally first choose the vendor content that comes up in the search results. “Most often I can narrow down what I’m looking for EITHER from an official source like the provider website OR an online forum,” another commented. “I can get YouTube results and anything else in one search.”
About four percent indicated they would contact the vendor by phone for support. (I’d expected low levels of interest in phone support.)
In fact, here’s what the pattern looked like when respondents looked back two years:
The growth in the proportion of respondents choosing to Google as a first resort was just about entirely at the expense of phone support. The cohort indicating they would first have gone to the vendor web site is identical to the current pattern.
“It’s easier and faster to use online resources than make a telephone call – because inevitably I’ll have to deal with an IVR menu and once I get someone they may not know or I may not be able to verbally communicate with them,” one comment read. “I’ve come not to expect good customer service especially over the phone – primarily because of past bad experiences, waiting on hold, etc. Note: The same is not true regarding financial institution help (ie: calling about an account) – I pick up the phone and have consistently gotten good customer service.”
Several respondents said they have abandoned direct vendor support because its reliability has declined in the last two years. Two indicated that they Google now because they themselves have gotten better at sorting things out on their own.
I propose that what applies to support content applies equally provocatively to marketing content. If you concur, then what do these observations portend for providers of online content?
For one thing, it appears the most critical step you can take to ensure that your content is seen as relevant – indeed, that it is seen at all – is to Search Engine Optimize it.
SEO has become a discrete discipline within the digital marketing profession. It isn’t rocket science, but there is enough to it to justify engaging a specialist to complement your content marketing initiative. A few core principles are these:
- Understand that the search engines employ robotic crawlers, and that a site can be made easier for these software robots to crawl. In some, but not all respects, they’re the same steps that make it easier for humans to navigate your site.
- Humans use a textual site map when they need help navigating a site. The search engine’s crawler uses a separate, XML site map. Make sure your site has both.
- The HTML code for each page should have a header (not visible on the page) that includes two important components: A short, punchy title, and a series of descriptive meta tags that capture what the page is about. Both the title and the meta tags should be unique for each page, not shared across the site.
- The page title and meta tags should accurately describe the content of the page. If not, the crawler is smart enough to notice, and it will degrade the relevancy of the page in search results.
- Use simple, plain language URLs, using words instead of numbers or codes. This will make the URLs more intelligible to humans; it may surprise you to know the search crawlers prefer plain language as well.
- Keep your site structure as simple and flat as possible.
- Graphical navigation features are great – but have an alternative navigation scheme that is entirely text based.
- Avoid links whose anchor text is unintelligible code – use words that describe the link target. Use alt text for pictures.
- Search relevance is highly dependent on your content’s reputation, especially the number of citations/links from other sites. Net: Having excellent content that people want to cite is critical and worth the investment.
Also critical but beyond the scope of this article is the complexity that mobile content introduces. Sites designed for mobile devices create entirely new issues – generally, conventional search engine crawlers cannot navigate them. You will need to ensure that your webmaster knows how to make the mobile site available to the separate crawlers the search vendors use for them.
It has been observed widely that the ascendency of social knowledge sharing is a generational phenomenon – that “Generation Y” employees entered the workforce with social networking habits deeply ingrained and expected to indulge those habits in the workplace. While this probably is valid, the legal experience referenced earlier suggests to me that the move to the cloud is not as generational as the pundits assume – the Google-it-yourself approach was adopted just as avidly by the older attorneys as it was with the Gen-Y crowd.
Bottom-up, social knowledge generation will have significant impacts on the way customers and end users are perceived by marketers. Management will have to develop new incentives for knowledge workers to contribute high-quality content. For more traditional firms now adopting KM or content marketing practices, decentralization of content generation will be difficult, as it is antithetical to some ingrained management principles and habits. But it will be obvious to anyone who has witnessed the evolution of the field that resistance is pointless.