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The Search-First Approach to Content Strategy

James Mathewson gets a lot of questions about what it means for the reader to be in control. In this article, he unpacks this truth in terms of a user behavior that is common and growing in digital media.

James Mathewson is the global search strategy lead for IBM and co-author of Audience, Relevance and Search, Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content. He writes regularly for the book's companion blog, writingfordigital.com, from which this article is reprinted.

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In our book, we often talk about how Web content is fundamentally different from print content. The central difference is the reader/writer relationship. As a rough generalization, in print, the writer is in control of the story. On the Web, the reader is in control of the story. As I speak about the book, I get a lot of questions about what it means for the reader to be in control. In this article, I want to unpack this truth in terms of a user behavior that is common and growing in digital media.

At the most basic level, the difference between print and Web is the ability to search. I suppose in an electronic book, you can search on keywords. Even in printed books, you can look up keywords in the index and find pages where those words are used. But these experiences are different in two key ways from the kind of search users have grown accustomed to in digital, especially on the Web. The first is scope. When you search within a text, it is scoped just to that text and not to every piece of content by every publisher on the Web who used that keyword. The second is context. Search engine results pages give users far more context to help them determine what is worth clicking. Checking words out of an index or searching on them in a Kindle is not nearly as rich as true digital search.

Search gives users control over their information flow or story. This leads to a common behavior unique to digital content: Digital content is nonlinear. Try as we like to design experiences that lead users down prescribed paths, they will often prefer creating their own paths through information using search. As search improves and the pace of information discovery accelerates, this behavior will only grow. Yet too few companies are adapting to this user behavior. How many resources are devoted to design and navigation at your company? If it’s more than what is devoted to search, your priorities are out of line with user behavior.

The trouble with serial content flow

To understand why this is such a big change, we have to think about what information discovery was like before digital. Fortunately, I am old enough to have experienced this. I remember my undergraduate thesis on John Searle. I collected about 20 books and a comparable number of articles using the age-old method of cross-referencing bibliographies from a couple of hundred sources. Then I read all of them, cover to cover, took copious notes, and wrote a 25-page paper on what I thought was his most important contribution to linguistic philosophy. I read thousands of pages to glean 25-pages worth of insights.

Contrast this to my M.S. thesis, which I completed in 2008, 21 years after my undergraduate thesis. In that, I wrote 125 pages after reading perhaps 1000. I cut down my reading-to-writing ratio by an order of magnitude because I was able to search for only the most relevant information, skipping thousands of pages of research that did not directly relate to my research goal. Those are pages I would have read if my primary information process were serial. Because it was nonlinear and search-dependent, I was much more productive. I also was able to incorporate research that did not appear in the bibliographies of the central texts in my field because search engines found them.

I only use this example to illustrate how search changes the way we process information. Away from academia, the pace of information retrieval is accelerating at a startling rate. There simply is not enough time to access information the way we did it before search took center stage in our information processes. In the business world, there’s just no time for linear navigation. This has important consequences for corporate content strategy.

User statistics we get bear out my claims. According to a 2007 KnowledgeStorm study, 84% of our audience began their research using Google. This percentage has only grown since then. Once they land on our page, search is by far the most important link on our masthead, in terms of the number of clicks it receives. Those who try to navigate through the masthead often revert to search. It’s no longer a safety net in case they can’t find what they’re looking for through navigation. More and more of our users just don’t bother with navigation. Search is the primary way they find information.

These facts have a lot of important consequences for content strategists, most of them are enumerated in our book, so I won’t go into them here. But one that is especially top of mind for me right now relates to investment. Given user preferences, it makes sense to invest in search more than any single aspect of your user experience. Your content is worthless if it never gets found. Because most users look for content through search, you will maximize its value if you take a search-first approach to content strategy.

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