Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Searching; Finding

Website search keeps coming up for me lately.

First, there was the discussion and blog posting on the Semantic Web, then a coworker asked me to look into ways to limit a search to only meta data (still looking), and then last week a coworker sent me a link to a exciting example of using a search tactic to help users and achieve marketing goals.

As so many web users are search dominant, one of the first things I did when I started managing my company’s website was to make sure we had a good search engine. That was five years ago and at the time many corporate websites’ search engines were abysmal to problematically useful.

We purchased a search engine from Verity (now owned by Autonomy) and I have been very happy with their product and service. In addition, I helped make the search engine more user-friendly by adding a custom thesaurus. As our business has so much jargon, the thesaurus redirects automatically from plain language or acronyms or official terminology.

Fine tuning a search engine

There is still work to be done with the search engine. It doesn’t allow natural language (eg. “Where are you located?”) nor does it allow fuzzy search for misspellings. And while Boolean (ie. searching with operators such as “and”, “or”, “not”) is supported, the default is to use only “and”. If one searches for Glen Farrelly, it looks for those two words together. If it gets no results, I would like it to try looking for the words Glen or Farrelly. Searchers should also be able to choose to limit their search to clearly-defined areas.

The above techniques help improve the results returned, but the problem remains that most search engine’s results pages are not that helpful.

Problems with corporate search engines

There are almost always too many results and they aren’t presented in a reader-friendly format. To make results read a bit better, I have been making sure all my title tags are short and indicative of the content. I could, possibly, have the text displayed under the title populated from the contents of the meta description tag – but this takes a lot of work to write and to code for an entire website. These techniques improve the results page, but don’t solve all the issues.

Sometimes people just have quick questions, such as address or opening hours, that can be answered in a sentence or two. Also search engines don’t generally have the ability to allow results for designated items to have custom replies.

These two items would allow a website manager to take the most common searched for items or items that are a priority for the company and display a short, well-worded reply and/or a link or two to more information.

I have seen sites do this, though not very often and then not particularly effectively. Until last week…

Finding the answer

Go to and introduce yourself to Julie.

Coast Capital Savings, based out of British Columbia, is Canada’s second largest credit union. I’d never heard of them, but now I’m in love with Julie.

Personal finance is boring, so very, very unbelievable boring (like boring enough that I’d watch reruns of Small Wonder instead of reading about it online). But Julie makes it so much fun.

Type in “GICs” and she finds a way to make talking about term deposits not boring! Auto insurance and RESP are also amusing - even contact info is funny. Julie also “sings” to you.

Here’s a list of topics Julie fields including her easter eggs (including my favourite, the robot dance).

Most importantly, Julie is helpful to users. This is crucial. If it doesn’t help the users, it is at best a passing lark or at worst it could backfire by frustrating users.

Julie is genius on so many levels…

For users:
  • Narrows search results on key topics and directs to the most applicable pages
  • Offers links to info that customers are looking for or company wants to push, or both
  • Humourous approach makes dreary financial topics more interesting
  • User-friendly to the ultimate - as not only is the feature easy to use, it engenders a friendly feeling (except when Julie sings)
  • Homepage real estate is premium (see my posting on the topic) and this delivers multiple tailored messages plus well-positioned calls to action in a relatively small space
From a marketing standpoint:
  • encourages viral marketing (after all a colleague passed it on to me and now I’m passing it on to you)
  • helps differentiate the brand as more fun and unique than the other stodgy, impersonal institutions
  • encourages website visitors to become more engaged with the site and to dig deeper into the offerings, if only to see how Julie responds
  • with new items added to Julie’s array, it encourages users to return to the site
  • hard for competitors to copy (yes the major banks can afford similar technology but they don’t have access to the same persona or gifted production team)
The only downside is that Julie probably doesn’t work well for low-bandwidth users and that the user’s query has to match pretty closely to her pre-defined repertoire. Also, Julie will become less compelling & viral as this technology becomes more common.

I have had this type of feature on my wish list for the last two years. Verity did offer a product to achieve some of this, however, Julie has raised the search bar.

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