Through a simple case study, a post at the LugIron Software Blog shows why SEO Matters When You’re Publishing Documentation. Implementing SEO principles should be a natural fit for technical writers, given our experience and natural affinity for indexing, but as the post notes, it’s surprising that “much of the documentation content put online completely ignores basic SEO principles.”
The post further explains that “documentation is a collection of answers to customer questions, and generally, customers have been trained to search before looking.” This means that they likely won’t visit your support or documentation site, without first asking one of the major search engines their question.
Studies have shown that users click on the top three links on search engine results pages 80% of the time, and that users spend nearly 70% of their time reading the content on those pages. When customers have a problem and find themselves needing an answer to get out of a jam, they will look first to Google for help.
To illustrate the importance to user experience of having your documentation appear first in search results, the post provides a real world example on how users from Skype—a company that provides Internet-based phone calls—seek assistance from Google, when they need to retrieve or reset a lost password.
The response users see in Google depends on what query they enter:
- “If users enter ‘skype lost password,’ the first result in the search engine is the exact help topic they need, with the exact answer to their question.”
- “If users enter ‘skype retrieve password,’ the first two links go to Yahoo! Answers, and the third link is the actual help topic with the answer—the one that was first in the results in our first query.”
- “If users enter ‘skype password,’ no where on the first page of the Google results is any link to Skype’s documentation. Instead, the first link is to Skype’s forum, where the content on the page is totally wrong. There is a link within the forum post to a place where users can ask Skype for help by opening a ticket, but unfortunately this link is also broken and sends the user to the completely wrong place.”
The first search scenario is obviously the best user experience. Customers get the information they need, on the first try.
In the second scenario, the LugIron Software post explains, there are a large percentage of users who will not go directly to where the answer is. Instead, they will be sent to a question in Yahoo! Answers, where the “answer” provided on the Yahoo page is incorrect. It links to the wrong place in the Skype support center, and instead of sending users to the answer, it goes to the Skype support center’s homepage.
Fortunately, the first topic under the Support Center’s home page is “Popular Queries,” which links to the right topic in the documentation. In this case, the user frustration is not prolonged. (However, the post observes, Skype’s Support Center is the exception to the rule, as many Support Centers do not show Popular Queries.)
The last scenario is the least user-friendly. No where on the first page of Google’s results is there any link to Skype’s documentation.
The first link is to Skype’s forum–that’s good–but unfortunately the content on the page is totally wrong. No help for the random user looking to retrieve their password. There is a link within the forum post to a place where you can ask Skype for help by opening a ticket, but unfortunately this link is also broken (like in the forum post from the previous search) and sends the user to the completely wrong place.
According to the post, the cost of the last search scenario to Skype’s customer experience is high—about 20,000 searches that are dead-ended this way, each month.
Four Tips to Make Your Content the Most Authoritative on Google
They drilled into me early on, the importance of indexing to our documentation efforts. (I blush to think, how many times in the intervening years, however, that developing a good index has slipped by the wayside, out of lack of budgeted time in the schedule, or sometimes for me, the perception that such efforts would not have been regarded as an accountable use of my time.) As technical writers, we must fight this indexing apathy, which we ourselves are as much to blame for as anyone else, whenever and wherever we can, because maintaining and enhancing our search skills is key to our discipline’s prolonged viability. As we hone our basic SEO skills, technical writers must promote our profession as one that has always cared about and been good at, search and information architecture.
So, based on the LugIron Software post, here are ways your organization can ensure your customers find the right answer online, the first time:
- Follow Skype’s example and include a Popular Queries page on your Support site to direct customers to your most popular topics.
- Place search front and center at your Support Center, giving users an easy way to get what they need. Don’t force users to make decisions about where to find an answer. (For example, is it a knowledge base article? Is it a forum post?)
- Optimize most popular topics for more effective SEO. Use the Google Adwords Keyword Tool to get new keyword ideas and ensure that users land on the right topic, regardless for example, of whether they search for “skype lost password” or “skype password.”
- Manage stale content. In the case of the Yahoo! Answers, the LugIron Software post suggests, “Skype could easily leave an answer of their own, directly on the Yahoo Answers page, that is more appropriate and linked to the correct page. Further, their own forums are providing incorrect answers. They should edit those forum posts to ensure that users reading them also know where the right answer is in the official Skype documentation.”
This approach will take coordination between the different disciplines. It requires a champion within your company, empowered to manage the entire customer experience, and to integrate the various silos of content.
- AODC Day 2: Optimising your Content for Google Search (excellent notes from Sarah Maddox’s Technical Writing Blog, from the Australasian Online Documentation and Content conference)