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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

7 tips to build exceptional site search and discovery

November 2, 2021 | By Pauline Lafontaine, Senior Product Marketing Manager – Algolia @algolia

Search is a topic media companies often overlook. Most of us associate the word search with search engines like Google/Bing/DuckDuckGo. These organic channels are often how visitors (and at times internal team members), will search a content catalog. But it’s time to give some serious thought to your internal, on-page search. 

There are many reasons to optimize internal search such as:

  • The way in which it reveals clear ROI as it complements social media and external search.
  • The way that it helps clarify user intent, which informs you about navigational issues and content needs.
  • How it allows you to reveal the depth of your catalog by exposing visitors to more content
  • The fact that optimized search empowers visitors to find solutions to their problems, meaning they are happier overall.
  • It empowers journalists to discover content on your owned channels as opposed to external ones. 

The good news is that creating optimized site search may be easier than you think.

7 tips to achieve a best-in-class search and discovery experience 

Tip 1 : Know your user’s intent 

Your goal may be for users to consume content. However, before building the ideal path to that content, you must clarify their intent: 

  • Are they looking to find a specific piece of content e.g. “yesterday’s premier league score”?
  • Are they researching a specific topic or theme e.g “eco-friendly lifestyle”?
  • Or are they looking for inspiration? Catching up on news?  

Each user’s intent(s) are solved with different discovery patterns: search, guided discovery, or recommendations. It’s critical that you identify what your specific user’s intent and motivations are. Make sure that you spend time mapping this out, to then serve each user individually. 

Tip 2 : Audit your content catalog 

  • How many long-lasting pieces of content do you have vs. short lived items? 
  • Among your live pieces of content, what percentage of content is actually being consumed today? 
  • Are there opportunities to expose more content, perhaps resurfacing historical archives or adding in new partner content? 

These types of questions will help you to define priorities for your discovery strategy. 

On top of that, the quality of your metadata (date of publication, theme, topic, etc.) is crucial to ensure a good user experience. Be clear on the attributes that will determine how your content ranks when queried. Think about what uniquely differentiates your content catalog such as freshness, particular niches, short or snappy content, exclusivity, etc.

Tip 3: Identify your priorities, KPIs, and North Star metric 

In order to build a great search and discovery experience, you need to be clear on your priorities and key metrics. Perhaps that’s to increase time spent, increasing engagement to support an ads-based model. Or it might be to increase premium subscriptions.

It’s not uncommon for media companies to run on several business models: ad-based, subscription-based, and even ecommerce. Also, priorities, goals, and primary metrics may shift and change over time. Common video industry on-demand models include AVOD (advertising-based video on-demand), SVOD (subscription video-on-demand), and TVOD (transactional video on-demand). Identifying your primary model(s) and goal(s) is critical to building great user experiences to achieve those goals.

To achieve your goals, consider: 

  • engagement and discovery patterns like related content recommendations, or topic refinement with suggested tags.
  • building content discovery widgets that provide a glimpse of your content catalog from third-parties and partner websites.
  • personalized recommendations and other ways to engage loyal subscribers. Help them discover new content and gain more value from your platform.

Tip 4 : Build your discovery map 

After identifying your goals and core metrics, you should then build a discovery map that reflects your objectives and specific needs. Here is a template and example to use. 

  • On the X axis: describe your different content types: Fresh news and short reads, Reports and long-form, archives, niche content, etc.
  • On the Y axis : your various user’s or persona’s intents 
  • In each content type box of this matrix, you then describe a “Discovery scenario”. For example, what is the preferable touchpoint (e.g “Search box” or “Discovery tab” or “Home Page”), or what is the most important ranking criteria for your content (e.g. “date of publication” and “topic”), and/or what is the CTA that compliments your North Star metric (e.g “read another article” or “sign in”)

Tip 5 : Evaluate your existing search and discovery 

Next, audit your existing setup. Starting by evaluating your various discovery scenarios and note their pros and cons. 

Below are examples of other items to evaluate throughout your audit. How do you manage: 

  • typos? Ex: “I want to watch lalalnd”
  • broad queries? Ex: “I want to watch romantic comedies”? 
  • natural language queries? Ex: “I want to watch Rom Coms”? 

There are many more. Remember: The better you analyze your existing search & discovery shortcomings and opportunities, the better you can move faster on optimizing them. 

Tip 6 : Find the right balance between AI-led and human-led curation 

Curation strategies vary a lot across the media industry. While publishers often rely heavily on editorial teams, video platforms are often algorithmically curated. There is no right or wrong way to do this; finding your balance is key.

AI, for example, can be a way to surface what you have outlined in your content discovery map. Among the discovery scenarios that you have considered, think about how AI can help augment your team’s work. It can bridge gaps or free up editorial time. Finding this balance allows for increased efficiency and a focus on quality. 

There are many different ways to leverage AI, here are a few. It can:

  • entirely power content blocks or rows leveraging various recommendation models 
  • be used on top of manually curated blocks to dynamically reorder content, depending on their popularity 
  • shorten the path to content by leveraging intent detection, and displaying personalized suggestions of content or categories 

Tip 7 : Select the right solution for you

After following the tips outlined throughout this, you will be in a better position to select the right solution for your business and team. Your implementation may consist of building your own search and recommendation engine. It might consist of building from external platforms that are made for developers. Or perhaps you’ll buy off-the-shelf solutions.

In making these decisions, here are a few more considerations that are important at that stage.

  • Think through your unique requirements in terms of short- and long-term scalability. Not all solutions are equal in terms of a geographical footprint, expansion, and the ability to manage audience peaks, for example. 
  • Similarly, understand your team’s unique situation when looking at how architectures and services selected will be built and maintained. If building things out in-house looks to be your best decision, consider what it takes to maintain, scale, and handle regular change requests and develop features and iterations.  
  • Think about the future of discovery: What you have defined today in regards to your discovery map will likely evolve and change as quickly as consumer’s behaviors do. Consider a solution that will be future-proof, enabling you to consistently offer the most enjoyable and rewarding experience for your customers (and teams). 

Our hope is that these tips will help you create the most optimized experiences for both your customers and your teams. Best of luck in planning, auditing, and creating your unique search and discovery experience. It’s worth it because effective search and discovery will help engage your site visitors and convert them into fans for the long-term. 

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