Improving the searchability of your documentation

Improve searchability and point users to your documentationA huge part of what makes a technical writer’s documentation successful isn’t just that it is easy to read, but that it is also easy to search and find the information that you are looking for.

Searchability nowadays isn’t just limited to a table of contents and an index. The way in which technical documentation has expanded onto the web and mobile devices has given us more options to play with. Plus, creating great modern user documentation is as much about pictures, videos and interaction as it is about the text. A key aim of any technical writer (or any other content creator, for that matter) is to take a user-first approach. There’s little point in creating great documentation if your target audience can’t find it.

We’ve talked about making your content more accessible to the user previously, but we think it’s just as important to make your content more available too. Here are some of the things that I have picked up to boost the searchability of my content.

Identify your keywords

Whether you are writing in a Wiki or generating hard copy documentation, identifying the keywords of your topic is invaluable. Most users aren’t going to read through all of your documentation, so using keywords is a good way to ensure that they can search through your documentation to the article or topic that they were looking for.

Put yourself in your end-user’s shoes. Let’s say they have just bought a new car, and wanted to know how to operate the horn. They pick up the car’s user manual, and begin attempting to find the section that describes how to operate the horn. Instead of trawling through hundreds of pages to find what they are looking for, they turn straight to the index to narrow their search. What word will they search for first? ‘Horn’.

Why?

Because it’s relevant, specific and unique. This is exactly the way in which you should address keywords. Pick out the most important word or term that will point the user directly towards the article that they’re looking for. Be careful about the keywords you choose to focus on, too. For example, if you’re writing documentation on horn operation, don’t focus on the word ‘wheel’. The user likely isn’t going to search for ‘wheel’ to find out how to operate the horn. Don’t be afraid of repeating the keyword throughout your topic either. Repetition enhances the effect of a keyword, so that the next time the user needs to find the article again they can search for the keyword quickly. Predicting user behaviour like this can help you get ahead of the game and enhance the searchability of your documentation.

Tagging improves searchability

Tagging content is a simple and effective way of categorising similar content with each other. By tagging your content, your users can easily find related articles without having to use another search query. Tagging helps to organise your content and boost searchability.

Tagging is much more effective when your content is more varied. This helps you split up your documentation into identifiable and manageable chunks. Let’s go back to the car analogy. You arrive at a car dealership, looking for a new car. More specifically, you’re looking for a 4×4, but you only know the name of one model. Handily, the dealership parks all of its 4×4 cars on one side of their site. You recognise the model you know, but there are other 4 wheel drive models available, opening up your car search. You find that one of the other models suits your needs better (it’s less capable off-road, but it has satellite navigation and heated seats), so you go ahead with your purchase.

It’s the same idea with your content. You might be working with multiple topics containing hundreds of different articles and sections. The danger to tagging is getting too carried away. Too many tags often reduces their impact. You want enough so that a page is linked to multiple other pages, but not so much that it appears everywhere. Over-tagging causes the benefits of tagging to dilute. In general, the more articles linked with a tag, the fewer the number of relevant articles linked to the tag.

Tags are a great alternative for sorting your content and letting your user find other articles that they may not have previously associated with their search. Take charge of your dealership (documentation) and see your customers (end-users) drive away happy (their questions answered).

Update your documentation

A lot of technical communicators overlook this, but it’s quite logical if you think about it. Updating your documentation not only freshens up your content but also attracts more users to view it. During my university days, I was often forced to take out textbooks from the library instead of buying them myself (the price of university-level textbooks was, and still is, seriously expensive). Once I had pinpointed the exact location of the textbook that I wanted, I instinctively looked for the latest edition. I was always disappointed that there were already people who had beaten me to them before I got there.

And this sums up the typical behaviour of your end-users. They’re far more likely to choose up-to-date documentation, given the choice. Equally, if your documentation is digital-based, older content is usually buried under newer, updated content, making neglected articles even harder to find. I’ve been working in a web-based wiki, where newer content pages are promoted in a separate column on the main front page. And if you’re working on the web, search engines favour content that is updated regularly, ensuring that they stand a higher chance of finishing higher up the order on results pages. If you can’t find your content on search engine results pages, then nor can your users. Therefore updating your documentation is a straightforward way of improving its searchability.

It should also go without saying that documentation should be audited on a regular basis so that the documented information is still correct and relevant for the end user. Documentation that contains wrong information is worthless and can confuse the end-user further.

Finally, you should make the very most out of social media channels. Promoting and extending your documentation on social media can widen your outreach and promote discussion. Utilise hashtags, post updates during your documentation’s development and share similar articles with your followers. In doing so, you can gauge user feedback, make changes as requested and ultimately make your content more searchable.

Do you have any tips on improving content searchability? Join the discussion and leave a comment below.

Improving the searchability of your documentation
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