It’s Not Just About Searching—It’s About Findability


      Bookmark and Share

Over the years I've been involved in a number of firsts. Early in my career, I was a member of a team that managed to get a lead balloon to fly. I was a delegate at the very first International Online Information Meeting in London in 1976, and I was in the audience at Philips' launch of CD-ROM technology (650MB of storage seems ridiculously small just over two decades later). I vividly remember the enthusiasm at Intranets 1999—the inaugural Online, Inc. event held in San Francisco in 1999—which has become the definitive global intranets conference under now-owners Information Today, Inc. Last May in New York, I was at another first: ITI's inaugural Enterprise Search Summit, which attracted over 200 delegates. In what was probably also a first for ITI, they asked a Brit to keynote the conference…a considerable honor for me.

I took the keynote opportunity to beat a particular drum of mine: Enterprise search cannot be taken out of context from other routes to information discovery. I have a view that there are three ways in which information discovery can be accomplished in a Web environment. The first is through lists that adorn the left-hand side of most intranets and Web sites, which attempt to categorize information. The second is through hyperlinks, and the third is through a search engine. In the case of Web sites, lists and hyperlinks are probably about equally important with search being an afterthought (except perhaps in the case of large database-driven ebusiness sites). For intranets, hyperlinks are somewhat less important because of the problem of creating and managing them, so search takes on much greater importance. (There may be some empirical evidence for/against this of which I am not aware, but I've been pitching this for well over a year and no one has yet to fundamentally disagree with me.)

The current emphasis on content management is not, in fact, about content management at all but rather about content publishing—and there is a difference. Organizations are aware of the problems in getting current, reliable information into an intranet but feel that their responsibility stops with building the repository and providing some templates for page display. Far too little attention is paid to the fact that unless people can find the information, the effort to add it to the repository and to make the look consistent is wasted.

Thankfully, information architecture advocates have begun to raise the importance of information discovery (www.aifia.org), but there still seems to be a total lack of understanding about the importance of search. Too many organizations bolt it onto sites as an afterthought or work under the assumption (usually partially or even totally incorrect) that, since their CMS implementation includes a search engine, all their problems are solved. However, the search functionality in many CMS products is there to help authors find content for reuse and not to provide volume searching of the repository.

I am on record as saying that if I only had one book in my company's library it would be Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville's Information Architecture and the World Wide Web. Morville in particular has developed the concept of findability, which in his new Web site (http://findability.org) he describes as "the quality of being locatable or navigable. At the item level, we can evaluate to what degree a particular object is easy to discover or locate. At the system level, we can analyze how well a physical or digital environment supports navigation and retrieval." Findability and usability are not the same but are closely related. Morville also comments that "information architecture is a discipline concerned with the structural and semantic design of shared information spaces. Findability is a goal of IA, along with usability, desirability, credibility, and accessibility."

The problem that I run into time and time again is that although there is a reasonable understanding of the content publishing cycle, user requirements are often overlooked, or, at best, usability is confused with utility. A site can be very usable, but if the appropriate metadata is not invoked then the search process is going to be a disaster even if the search-function interface has been presented very usably. In my April column, I discussed the value of personas in intranet design and have found them of special value in understanding how people will search for information.

It would seem that the search engine industry would have a vested interest in promoting the effective use of search technologies within the context of findability, but I have to say that in my view, most search vendors' provide fairly lightweight white papers, and their own Web sites provide poor examples of site design. Often the vendor's own search engine seems not to have been optimized to search the site. Perhaps this is why the delegate numbers at the Enterprise Search Summit were so high.