I have really bad news for all of you that are spending tons of time on search engine optimization…search is very 2014. Forget it, it stinks, you can’t believe what you are expected to do next.
I had the good fortune of attending my first NFAIS Conference last week. This is an assembly of some of the best and brightest when it comes to organizing, displaying, and exposing information on the Web. I had no idea what I was in for but all through the conference I was scrawling notes and frantically tweeting.
Search has been the name of the game for some time now. If Google can’t find your stuff, you are dead to the world. If someone happens to find your content (likely from Google and not your expensive marketing ploys), your search better deliver the Amazon or Netflix experience.
So let’s say you have done all that. Your have spent the last 5 years making sure your search engine optimization (SEO) is top notch, your content shows up on the first page of Google search results, you have jumped through every hoop Google Scholar has thrown your way. The content search on your site is gorgeous. Well, that is apparently okay for today, but tomorrow is another story.
There were a few sessions that talked about changing user expectations. We have seen this coming, hence the “Amazon experience” comment. Everyone wants to find stuff, see related stuff and buy stuff in one easy click. But a lot of time was also spent discussing the mobile experience of users.
People spend inordinate amounts of time on their smart phones. The result of that is an expectation that every website behaves like a mobile phone. I am not talking about making web sites “responsive.” In fact, everyone rolled their eyes and gave a chuckle whenever that dirty little word popped up.
What I am talking about is having an agile site that you are not afraid to change every week like an app that upgrades in the background of your phone. A huge takeaway is that making a splash with lots of new features at once is cute but not effective. Make small, iterative changes without making your users learn how to use a whole new website when they finally decide to pay you a visit again.
But what about search? What do we learn from the mobile experience when it comes to search? Partly that people have grown impatient. There is an app for all your needs. Need a ride? Uber can be there in 5 minutes. Hungry? You never have to make a call to order a pizza again. Can’t remember how to get to a meeting location? It’s saved in your Google Maps app from last year and the app will tell you the best way to go, right now!
These are all examples of search, though not traditionally what we talk about in our internal SEO meetings. Search for 2015 means giving people what they want, when they want it, without them having to ask you. That’s right. I call this crystal ball search!
Of course there is no magic behind this type of search, it’s all about watching and snooping on what you do. If you thought that Google autofill on the search box was freaky, wait until you see what Microsoft Bing + Cortana has in store.
Imagine that you are interested in a conference and you search for information. You also search for articles by a particular author in that field. You can tell Cortana that you have these interests, or “she” can INFER this from your search patterns. Next thing you know, flight and lodging information is being offered and updates on the program are sent to you so you can see that your favorite author will be presenting at this conference.
There were several start-up companies invited to the NFAIS Conference and most of them are trying to address this concern. ScienceScape and Kudos are taking a “social media” approach to building a community and feeding users content that fits into that community.
Slightly more interesting when it comes to solving the search problem is Sparrho, a service that basically provides you with a daily digest of information from lots of databases. Sparrho is serving up daily doses of published articles, patents, conference papers, posters, and video on the topics that interest you. It’s like a slightly curated Google Alert.
Lots of new start-ups are running a mini-discovery service these days. Reference or PDF management tools like colwiz, ReadCube, Mendeley, and such are telling you what you should be interested in based on what you have read, shared, or stored.
If I have not scared you about the next generation of crystal ball search, you really need to know a bit about what EBSCO learned from watching students look for research online. Students understand search and they want it to be simple. If they don’t think that you have what they are looking for, they abandon you. That’s right. No need for advanced search or “you might also like.” They are gone and are already searching on a whole other site. Not only that, they remember that your search failed to deliver and are not likely to come back. This is your first impression.
Kate Lawrence, vice president of user research at EBSCO, explained that it is “all about me.” She said that “the search results page is a page of answers, not a list of links.” She explained that there is an emotional experience on the search results page. Students, who are being taught to speed read in their SAT prep classes, are analyzing the first page of search results with amazing speed and detail. Think it’s a good idea to remove stuff like short abstracts from your search results? Think again…students are trying to decide if you have answered their question within seconds and a paper title might not cut it.
So where do we go from here? Well I think we need to actually use the feedback provided by our users. We’ve got analytics so let’s use them. Beyond our own usage, we need to be flexible, and yes, agile, in responding to user behavior outside of our content. As Joe Esposito warned recently in his post, mobile may really be the big disrupter here. Not that we think people will read scholarly content on mobile devices, which they are by the way, but that the heavy use of mobile devices changes what users expect from the digital world.
Lenny Teytelman from ZappyLab assured publishers at the meeting that is it not our place to innovate around these issues. We should, in his words, leave it to the start-ups. He is not entirely wrong but these start-ups are a dime a dozen and publishers don’t know which will make it or be purchased by your biggest competitor. All four start-ups featured at the conference spoke of the lack of capital coming from Silicon Valley investors for anything scholarly.
In the end, almost literally the end of the conference, it occurred to me why staying on top of user demands is so hard for publishers. Our customers, as defined as those who pay for our content, are mostly the libraries. Our users are mostly the patrons of the library. The users can tell us what they want all day long but the libraries tell us all the time that they don’t want to pay extra for features or services.
Maybe the answer is to abandon the arms race on features. Focus on publishing good content and lots of it. Let the major search engines and start-ups do the innovation and sell their services to the libraries and end users. What could go wrong?