Web Support Blog

February 27, 2007

Writing good titles for searching and browsing your site is important

Filed under: Content Effectiveness, Search — Chris @ 11:21 pm

A few months back I did some work to assemble a training for our knowledge base writers on how to write good titles. Why? Well no matter how good your content may be, if your users cannot find the content, they wont read it. Take for example if you were reading a list of search results — you will determine the relevance of the content (whether you will click-through to read it) predominately by the title. The title is often given more weight to enterprise search engines as well.

Often the case is that you do not have a bad search engine, you just have bad titles. Elinor Mills of CNet wrote an article this month that provides some good examples of poor titles from newspapers who post their stories online.  Here’s a great example from the article:

Caught speedingNew York Post on Barry Bonds’ amphetamine use (2007)

I believe this illustrates the principle well. Very simply, if you were searching on Barry Bonds because folks in the office were talking about potential drug issues, it would be highly unlikely that this title would compel you to click through. Jakob Nielsen also wrote an article about this way back in 1998; not much has changed since then.

If you search Google with “writing good titles” you will find several articles, for which you could come up with a standard for your organization (Jakob’s 1998 article was the 3rd result). Take for example “Writing Better Page Titles” (2nd result); though it refers to web page titles, you can apply the concepts to knowledge content titles too.

Let me conclude with three tips that are important to me:

  1. Make sure the most descriptive and important words are within the first 3 to 5 words of your title. For example, if you had several titles on “How to do…”, it would be difficult for the user to find the specific how to they want. For this article, I have “writing”, “titles”, and “searching” within the first 5 words.
  2. Write your title last. It is okay to have a temporary title to use as your objective or guide while writing, but go back to it and refine once you have finished writing your content.
  3. Search your site with the concepts or phrases that you would expect users to use to find your content, before you write it. Perhaps you will find there is already similar information available, and you just need to improve on it. Or perhaps the information returned is very different, so you may need to rethink how you would write your title (and content) before you publish it. Finally after published, repeat your search to validate your content is returned as you would expect.

How are the titles on your web support site?

January 27, 2007

Outsource systems, so you can put more focus on innovation

Filed under: General, Search, Web Analytics — Chris @ 10:51 pm

In an article by Jon Brodkin of NetworkWorld.com, he discusses a recent comment from Google’s Dave Girouard on how “insane” it is that companies spend 75% to 80% of their budget maintaining, instead of innovating. If you consider a company like Google, or even Amazon.com and eBay, they used innovative technologies to drive their businesses. So why don’t others learn from that?

In my current organization, we have solved some of this issue through outsourcing, while other systems have issues because there are too many owners for different parts within our organization. First let me share two short examples of successful outsourcing – a web analytics tool and a customer survey tool.

We use Omniture’s SiteCatalyst as our tool of choice to perform web analytics. Omniture takes care of the data collection and management – an area that has been a problem in organizations that I have been a part of in the past. In my last organization, log files needed to be joined from the various proxy servers and made available to a WebTrends installation. Occasionally the IT organization would change something in the proxy servers, and we might lose a day or two of data (until the problem was found and resolved).

Of course we are not completely free of responsibility with SiteCatalyst. We are responsible to tag our web pages, which then communicate web activity back to the Omniture environment. If we should make a mistake in our tagging, or forget to add tags to a new web page, then we would miss that data. The other thing we do is send additional data, via a batch load, to Omniture that further classifies our data. For example, the page tag will send a product id, then through the batch load, we will send a product name, which makes it much easier when creating and viewing reports.

The other outsourced example, our survey tool, is similar to Omniture SiteCatalyst, as the vendor manages the data for us. In both cases, we free up resources that would otherwise have to manage the data and the servers that host it. Of course in both cases, there are times where we want to join that data with data from other systems. Depending on the complexity, we can either load data into the vendor system, or extract it from the vendor system to ours. We typically would only do that for ad-hoc data analysis, as routine reporting has the required data transfers automated.

So that’s the good news. But when it comes to search, it is quite the opposite. First, you could outsource your search engine, your entire web site, or perhaps just the knowledge management portion. For example, RightNow Technologies provides the knowledge base infrastructure for companies such as IBM, Nvidia, and RealNetworks.

In my organization, and in many others, search itself takes many different specialized skills to make it work.

  1. Managing the network and security access
  2. Maintaining the OS on the servers
  3. Maintaining the search application, including indexing, and its custom code
  4. Develop and maintaining the user interface, including passing the appropriate data to the engine
  5. Develop and manage the ontology and dictionary rules
  6. Content maintenance (e.g. have the appropriate meta tags)

If we were to outsource, we could have someone else worry about the first three (1 – 3), but the last three (4 – 6) will always require people from our organization (4 could be outsourced, if we outsourced the web site development and maintenance). The missing element on the list is someone to have oversight; someone to keep all the various parties in contact with each other. The same resource would also be required if you outsource, though again the first three would be replaced my managing a vendor relationship.

So whether we are talking about outsourcing security, as Mr. Brodkin mentions in his article, or applications within your environment, your company can free up resources for innovation, while paying experts to maintain a system for you.

January 15, 2007

Web Analyst Recommendation

Filed under: Web Analytics — Chris @ 12:56 pm

My organization has been working with a Web Analyst in order to accelerate learning that otherwise would be very time consuming. Like many organizations, we do not have a mature toolset (it is coming), and so the effort to understand what the data is telling us is difficult.

Based on previous work with us some year or so ago, we asked Debora Geary of Fireweed Analytics to come back and work with us. Debora was able to merge and join disparate data sources and uncover some valuable information. For example, we couldn’t identify those who viewed our site that had not logged in — she matched ip addresses with previous logins and helped us realize that most of those visitors have logged in previously.

We also learned that most of the users that did not login had ran a search, but never clicked-through on any of the results. Another value was joining our customer survey data with our web data. Not surprisingly, the reported intentions from the survey did not always align with the behavior on the site.

Don’t just take my word for it, read Debora’s recent article Warming Up to Analytics. This five part series, which she completed on January 4th, 2007, provides a lot of insight to how she approaches her work. You can also catch her posting on the Web Analytics Forum on Yahoo.

So unless you are already an expert in the web analytics field, give Deobora a call — you will be an expert when she’s done.

December 27, 2006

Top 10 Usability Design Mistakes

Filed under: Usability/Design — Chris @ 7:58 pm

Have you considered that perhaps your web support site fails because you have failed with its design? Reading another of Dr. Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox articles reminded me how easy it is to do things wrong. In Dr. Nielsen’s Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design, he covers some very important points.

First, bad search. In regard to search Dr. Nielsen begins with handling typos and variants. If your search engine does not, you are going to have problems. Another important point is how the search engine prioritizes results. Many do it by the number of words matching in the search terms. This formula is a recipe for disaster, as all your long documents will overshadow your short and to-the-point troubleshooting responses.

Number two is my pet peeve, PDFs for online reading. If you have PDFs and the search issue mentioned above, this is what your users are getting, and they are not happy. The biggest issue I have with PDFs is the time it takes to view one. Dr. Nielsen makes other good points such as it is all an “undifferentiated blob.”

Does the color of a link change on your site after it has been clicked? If not, that is design error number three. Hopefully the user benefit is obvious – it tells them where they have already been.

Design issue four from Dr. Nielsen is non-scannable text. Remember that you are writing for an online audience that will quickly click away if your content is difficult to read. Dr. Nielsen recommends using bulleted lists and highlighting keywords, among other things.

The fifth mistake is to fix the size of your fonts. If you have ever seen someone have their browser default text set to large or x-large, you understand the issue. Just as your user may click away because they cannot easily scan your text, they will also click away if they cannot read it.

Do your titles lend themselves to search and search results? Here’s an area that should be taught as part of a course on writing for online consumption. Did you know that most users do not read more than the first three to five words? And if they do, the search engine will typically only display the first 66 characters. If you want your users to find the right content, then you better write titles that are meaningful and to the point, yet distinctive from each other.

You do not advertise on your support site, do you? You should not! And anything that looks like an ad that is not an ad is design mistake number seven according to Dr. Nielsen. You have big problems if you are using banners, have animation, or pop-ups. Get rid of them.

Design mistake number eight is violating design conventions. Dr. Nielsen points out that consistency is the more important element. Make sure your users know what to expect; and once they are familiar with your site, definitely do not change it for change sake.

How do you feel about pop-ups and new browser windows? That is what I thought. So do not make your customers deal with them either. If you must have a pop-up, at least have the courtesy to warn them. For example, on my business site, we pop-up are animations in a new window so we can turn off all the extra buttons and bars on the browser so we can maximize the viewable area. Since our animations are examples in using our design software, it is difficult to provide screenshots without a large area to display them.

Perhaps the biggest design issue for a support website, Dr. Nielsen’s number 10, don’t fail to answer the user’s question. If you were a commerce site, the question would be price. For a support site it is, how do I fix this problem? And if you do not have an answer here, how can I call you?

Most or all of these seem rather obvious, but surprisingly several get violated all the time. Some are also very difficult to do well. For example, if you do not put enough resources into your search engine, it’s not going to live up to your customers’ need. I have also seen people want to PDF solutions because it is easier for them. Remember, if it is easy for your staff, but not helping your customers, then even easier for your staff would be to not post it at all – because that is the same result that you will get.

How does your web support site stack up?

November 9, 2006

When Is Search Not Search?

Filed under: Search — Chris @ 11:41 am

Usability guru Dr. Jakob Nielsen tells us that our users have a firm mental model on search. The mental model includes a search box, a search button, and a list of results. In testing, people want search on every site to work like search on their favorite search engine (Google, Yahoo, and MSN).

Users also expect to type in a keyword or two. “In [a] recent search study, the mean query length was 2.0 words.” Search success rates also drop off drastically as users refine, from 51% on their first attempt, to 32% and 18% on their second and third attempts, respectively.

In the knowledge management and enterprise search space, most vendors are pushing natural language searches – completely different than the mental model Dr. Nielsen describes. Nielsen recommends that if that is the case, then do not make your search look like search, “…the label ‘Search’ equals keyword searching, not other types of search.”

Dr. Nielsen does not have a hard, fast rule to solving this problem, but he does recommend not using a “Search” button. Try instead using the word “Find” or “Retrieve.”

So, “When Is Search Not Search?” When you do not support keyword search.

Executing Knowledge Management

Filed under: Content Management, Knowledge Management — Chris @ 8:33 am

In my last post I ranted about my frustration within my organization in regard to knowledge management. I discussed some problems and gave a list of things required to make knowledge management successful. Since that time, I found a very good article from David Kay, Breakthrough Knowledge Management, that summarizes the Knowledge Centered Support (KCS) model.

Mr. Kay makes several great point when he discusses “Making the Transition” that have not occurred in my organization. The bolded items are where we need to go back and put more emphasis.

KCS requires a significant rethinking of knowledge, support processes, support staffers’ job descriptions, and rewards and recognition. It requires senior executive and management buy-in, a carefully executed communications plan, and an enabling technology platform. It generally requires help from experts outside the company. It’s not an initiative that should be taken lightly.

You can learn all about KCS from the Consortium for Service Innovation. Begin by reading their whitepaper, The KCS Operational Model.

This is a good reminder, we can all work hard to get our tools and systems to the next level, but if you do not have your content development model working, your web support site will still fail your customers.

November 7, 2006

What is happening in knowledge management in my organization?

Filed under: Content Management, Knowledge Management — Chris @ 10:40 pm

I have not been posting too much lately, actually not enough since I started this blog. Besides working on my other blog, I have been preoccupied at work, asking, “what is happening in knowledge management in my organization?” Because my current role is just now expanding into more main stream knowledge management, after being away from it for 18 months (I switched companies and started a team specifically to develop how-to and tutorial movie animations), I have been trying to figure out what is going wrong in our organization.

The truth is, our organization is struggling with the basic concept of web support and knowledge management — an organization that has been “doing it” for over five years. I finally believe that I have discovered why we are struggling: the employees, those who we are expecting to create the majority of the content, they do not understand why they need to create the content and they do not see how it benefits them.

It is a failure in our management practices in helping our subject matter experts to see the value of knowledge sharing; a failure in setting the right measures and expectations for knowledge management; a failure in not making sure the employees have the appropriate training; and most of all, a failure in making it a part of the employees job. Quite frankly, even though we have support at the Executive level, we do not have it at the front-line management level. I heard one person say today that it is hard for his peers to embrace knowledge management when they already have so much to do in their “day job.”

Day job? Why is knowledge management not part of their day job? Knowledge management creates capacity: 1) more customers can find their own answer; and 2) agents can find answers to help customers faster. This should be a part of every agents day job – period.
There is a lesson here for all of us. For knowledge management to work, and therefore the content behind web support, you need the following:

  1. Support through the entire management chain: it must be valued!
  2. Accountability: see#1 — if it is valued, then employees should be held accountable
  3. Training for the knowledge creators
    • How to use the tools
    • How to write
    • How the work contributes to the companies success
  4. Data
    • Where to invest (i.e. content gaps, search tuning)
    • What is working (i.e. success rate, satisfaction rate)
    • What is not working (i.e. unused content, broken links)
  5. Clear escalation path, with follow-through, for system issues

So if your organization is struggling with knowledge management, go talk to a few of the subject matter experts — your support agents. Go find out if knowledge management is part of their day job or not.

October 30, 2006

Components of Enterprise Search

Filed under: Search — Chris @ 4:03 pm

Do you ever wonder what the parts of a search engine are? Or, how would you evaluate search engines across enterprise search vendors? Well, if you visit the InQuira Resources (http://www.inquira.com/resources_reports.asp) you can order a whitepaper, “InQuira Self-Service and Support Search Solution – Advanced Linguistics, Dynamic Navigation and Classification” that can help you. The paper is an analysis done by the Patricia Seybold Group specifically about InQuira’s search solution, but it has information that can help you no matter who the vendor is.

The Patricia Seybold Group has developed a six category evaluation matrix that ranges from retrieval and results management to architecture to company viability. The whitepaper reviews each of these categories, many of which have up to five sub-categories.

In addition, the paper describes a search effectiveness ladder. The idea is that the higher the engine is on the ladder, the better it is. Keep in mind that the assumption is that natural language search is a good thing. Most of us are very familiar with Google, which is keyword search, and its algorithms are much different than an enterprise search tool. So assuming you buy into natural language search and you are willing to training your users on how to use it, here is the ladder:

  1. Keyword or text search: The more the word is mentioned in the content, the more relevant the content is scored.
  2. Natural language processing (NLP): Recognizes grammar, concepts, and relationships between words.
  3. Add synonyms to keyword and text searches (e.g smudge = smear)
  4. Advanced NLP: Introduces new relationships between words such as “contains,” “is part of,” and “occurs with.” Also identifies parts of speech and mines, classifies, and matches concepts.
  5. Intent: Classifies a question to make it actionable. The intent category is linked to language rules, ontology, and user experience categories.

So whether you are looking at a natural language search engine or a keyword search engine, I think this document is a good reference to use when analyzing all the components requiring consideration when purchasing a search solution. Of course if you already have a search solution, most of these categorize still work to make sure you have put the effort into each area.

October 15, 2006

When to Focus on Findability (Instead of Content)

Filed under: General, Search — Chris @ 12:06 pm

Recently I heard someone say that content is king – and I agree. But he said content is king, and that is where you should focus the majority of your attention on your site. To take that at face value would be a mistake. If you do not have any content on your site, of course you need to establish a process for creating and publishing content – a topic all on its own. The point I want to make today is that no matter how much content you have, if you cannot find your content, you might as well have not invested the resource to create it.

Take this a step further – you can focus your resources to develop high quality content, which can be expensive, and yet if your customers are not finding the content, you will have invested precious resources on developing content that no one is using. Consider your success rate for users ability to find your content – if it is 50% of the time, then one of every two content items will be found.

Here is how I look at this. Of all your content, how many have been viewed within the last month (or quarter). Do not confuse this with your success rate – if you had 100 content items, with 50% success, yet only 20 items were viewed, you potentially have an 80% findability (search or browse) failure. Of course since you only missed 50% of the time, your problem is no more than 50% — the rest is unnecessary content.

I will break this down further. Begin with this question: how many of the failed 50% could have been solved with the 80% that were not viewed? Assuming another 30 content items could have solved problems, then you have a 60% failure (and a 50% of unnecessary content). Therefore only 40% of your content is being found.


Realistically you probably do not have all the answers for all of your customer needs. So assuming you could solve another 25% of your customer queries if your customers could find the content; and assume it took another 10 content items, then you would only have a 30% failure (10/30), with 70% of your content being waste.


So we can see that putting the majority of our focus on content is not always the right approach. Instead, figure out how successful you site is doing with findability, and use it to drive your investment. With this new information, there are some strategies for dealing with this. Typically if you do a good job with findability, you can maintain that with minimal effort, so once you address these issues (search and browse), you can put most of your effort on content.

Perhaps you do not have the skills to address your findability issues, well… due to findability being more of a one-time effort (and then monitor for issues), you can conceivably outsource much of the work. This is especially true for search. There are many folks that can do great on site design and architecture, and you may already have one of them on staff, but search is a completely different issue.

In future posts, I will talk more specifically about search, and recommended approaches. For now if you look for outside help, here are some issues to explore: 1) keyword vs. natural language search (hint: Google uses keyword); 2) tagging vs. no tagging: balance resources for tagging vs. performance without tags.

October 11, 2006

Web Analytics Wednesday | Web Analytics Demystified

Filed under: Web Analytics — Chris @ 8:41 pm

I had a great opportunity tonight to meet Eric T. Peterson, the author of Web Analytics Demystified, and several other web analytic colleagues. Eric has coordinated Web Analytics Wednesday all over the globe — this is a time for people to meet locally and discuss web analytics. I am just fortunate enough to live in Portland where Eric, Web Trends, and many Intel folks do.

I did not meet anyone with customer support experience like myself, but I definitely met many smart and enjoyable people. I was very impressed with how welcome I felt, and how well everyone was engaged in conversation. Kudos to Eric for putting this together — I wish that I would have attended one of these earlier. Be sure to check out Web Analytics Wednesday in your area.

Oh, and I got a copy of Web Analytics Demystified, which I will read and give a review here in the future. I also happened to order another of Eric’s books today, Web Site Measurement Hacks — looks like I have some reading to do.

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