In this episode, Pete Navarra explains why time is of the essence when you're reimagining your search experience.

Jae: Hey Pete, thanks for joining me here today. 

Pete: Hey, thanks for having me. 

Jae: So we’re talking today a little bit about the speed of implementation when it comes to site search and why that’s so important. Can we start with that? Can you give a little context on why that’s so important?

Pete: We’re in the era of impulse buyers and we need things now. And what it comes down to – especially from a developer perspective – is we have so much work that needs to happen for companies. Digital transformations being able to move quickly is important. And you know, when you’re trying to either launch a new product or reevaluate your website design or uplift your website as a whole, you can get bogged down with a lot of monolithic patterns where you must do everything all at once. But you can’t decorate a tree unless you decorate a whole forest, as an example.

And so the idea around being able to accelerate your search might seem like a daunting task if you are putting it in the parameter of the rest of your activities. So it’s important to be able to move fast. And a lot of my advice that I typically give people is that you need to take things in chunks and be successful with small things.

First, it’s the small things – I think the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. And so when we think about it from your own search page and being able to really uplift, moving fast is key.

Jae: That makes a lot of sense. And, you know, you’re talking about it from the developer standpoint and I’m assuming that they’re on the hook to kind of bring it to market.

You talked about delivering, rolling these things out – so they’re on the hook to bring it to market quickly. What about from the marketer standpoint? So now that site search is up and running, you know, what’s important from like a speed and agility perspective for the marketer? 

Pete: Well, I think at the end of the day, you know, from a marketing perspective, they wanna make sure that the right content is getting in the hands of the right people to look at the content.

And so when you have control, especially over that speed and agility to really own and manage your own search results,  you wanna make sure that that experience keeps the people on their site, they’re not using Google to find your content, that they’re using your own site to find your content.

Because at the end of the day, if they’re on your site looking for that content and you’re able to move fast and be kind of agile with how you’re presenting that content, you don’t have to worry about competitors getting into your search results. You don’t have to worry about competing products or services showing up in those same results – instead you can start to prop up the really good value proposition in terms of why you know your product or services that you’re offering are best.

And that happens through the search result. 

Jae: I would assume that that includes everything, like the promotions type of search results where you’re pointing to a very specific article or some page that you want people to see, as well as even things like just the search results themselves.

Are you kind of getting at the fact that the digital marketer has an opinion on what the curated search results should be for any given topic? Is that what you’re getting at?

Pete: Yeah, absolutely, but it’s not just about promotions. It’s easy for us to specify a keyword and then pin a couple promotions at the top. It’s harder to really understand what is the reasoning behind why people are searching the words that they’re searching. And being able to then say, “maybe there’s some rules that we can put into place that can change the relevancy around other search results” – maybe we’re able to take some of the analytics that we’re getting in kind of a live environment really quickly and be able to say, “Hey, we see a lot of people on our site searching for these things.”

And these results are not the results that we wanna show, right? And so we’re able to then fine tune. It could be that maybe the content that is on your page that’s delivering these results doesn’t have the proper metadata and keywords and  emphasis on certain search terms. And it should have.

So it’s almost like you’re doing your own internal SEO and then being able to react quickly by implementing rules. Maybe you need to implement some additional synonyms. It could be a number of things, but all of these triggers are things that you can control that provide a better experience than what somebody is seeing. If you have a poor experience, somebody’s gonna stay on Google. And Google’s not gonna know your synonyms. Google’s not gonna know your rules. They’re certainly not gonna promote the results that you want to promote. And so the idea around this is really being able to create an experience that gives people that Google-like feel, but caters the content to what the marketer thinks the user needs to see.

Jae: Sounds like that would actually be very potentially complex to keep up with, right? If you didn’t have a really easy way to control it? 

Pete: Right. And that’s where, again, the speed and agility comes in. 

Jae: So how does SearchStax Studio help you with that particular aspect of it?

Pete: You know, it can be complicated. It can also be easy, right? 

So a lot of the complication can come around the fact that there are search experiences and tooling on the market that really requires the developer to play more of a role in moving fast. And when you have to deploy – have to rely on the developer to move fast – you’re talking about development sprints, you’re talking about code reviews and it could take a lengthy amount of time – minimally two weeks, if we think from that agile perspective, right? When the reality is that if the tool is simple and easy to use, the marketer can make all these adjustments on the fly. 

And I think that’s what SearchStax Studio provides, is really this dashboard that the marketer has access to, to really control relevancy, control how people are using the search results experience, and do so in a way that doesn’t require a developer, doesn’t require any development sprints. Literally, you can make changes on the fly  and instantly see those changes start to occur on your website. It’s pretty amazing actually. 

Jae: That’s awesome. Thanks Pete. Really appreciate you jumping in and helping us understand this. Again, agility and speed is super important and it doesn’t just end at the promotions. It just starts there. And there’s a whole like set of other things that you can do to establish control. So definitely check out a little bit more about Search Stack Studio, for all of you listening, and thank you for visiting.

Pete: Thanks for having me, Jae.

Part II


Thanks again for joining, Pete. This one is about the cost of a bad search experience. So let’s kick off with the obvious. You know, we hear a lot of stats about how an actual poor search experience is bad for business, and we can touch on the data from such studies at another time. But for this conversation, can you just give us a real world perspective of what this actually means?

Pete: You know, if we think about bad search experiences – I consider myself also a consumer. So  when I am on a website – and I think it’s funny because I don’t think a lot of companies realize this – but if they think about their own usage of the internet and other people’s websites, the search bar is my second interaction that I have with a website.

I say second because the first one is, I see the homepage when I go to a website, and then my second interaction is I’m usually looking for something and so then I click on that search icon. From a marketer’s perspective, the whole point of having search on a website is to ensure that your users and visitors on your website are able to find the content that they need in order to convert. Whether that conversion is signing up for a subscription or purchasing a product – or maybe you’re just a think tank and you want people to consume your knowledge – the idea is that you want people to convert and leave there thinking that they were successful in their mission for getting to your website.

So the cost of a bad search experience is really – I mean, when I go to a website and I start interacting with the search bar and I’m looking for something specific and I cannot find what I’m looking for or even worse – and I’m gonna be honest – what drives me nuts as a consumer is when I use a website, and then I see that Google search result experience because they didn’t really implement search. I immediately just leave, and I go to Google. I think using Google as my search engine to find things, that’s disastrous sometimes. Especially for someone who wants somebody else to stay on their site.

Jae: You mentioned two things there, conversion and level of engagement. And ultimately as a digital marketer, you’re essentially responsible for driving more engagement with the brand.

And so what I’m hearing you really get at is the fact that even if it’s not a dollar kind of equation when we’re talking about cost here, it’s really the impact to the brand. ‘Cause like you said, I’m gonna jump out and use Google now. So how does this translate to what we’re doing today to help organizations, you know, just figure out the digital transformation journey? Why is the search component such a big deal? You kind of touched on it, but maybe you can elaborate a little further. 

Pete: Yeah. I think when you say “we”, you’re talking about the collective body of the industry, right? Maybe I have a little bit of a different view on this, but I mean, I come from the consulting world – I’ve been in consulting for the last 16 years and obviously now that I work for SearchStax, you know, we are propping up our tooling. 

But the reality is that search is like checking our blood, our cholesterol levels, right? It’s like we don’t really think about it until there’s something wrong and suddenly we’re almost at that point where we realized that, hey, we could solve this by just having a better search experience – if I had just been watching my cholesterol, maybe I would have better health. So a lot of times search is kind of that last thing that was left to think of. But the reality is it’s a big component of your website.

I used to talk about search like the lifeblood of your site. Without search, your site is really static. You click on links and you see lists, right? And nothing ever changes, I come back and I see the same list. But with search, you know, I can actually iterate or interact with the search bar and see a different experience. Maybe the act of searching  is going to curate content that I would’ve not found had I just been using a menu navigation. And a lot of that comes from being able to have a really dynamic search experience. 

Jae: So then why don’t we see as much focus on search being prioritized up front and center? Like you said, it sometimes comes across as an afterthought in the digital transformation initiative. But obviously it seems like we need to be viewing it differently. Why do you think that happens? Why isn’t it being prioritized? 

Pete: I think there’s a stigma that search is hard. Honestly, I really do. I think there’s a stigma that search is hard, and because when we think of an overall digital transformation, we’re probably in the middle of doing a website relaunch.

Maybe we’re doing a rebrand. Maybe we’re completely changing our architecture. Maybe we’re switching from one platform to another. So in the confines of search, we think search is hard. And so then we rely on our solution integrators and our partners to  lead us down a path of taking care of our search.

And then invariably what happens is that the focus is on the homepage, the focus is on the landing page, the focus is on design. The focus is in all the areas that the marketer thinks are the priority. And at the end of the last mile, somebody says, “oh, what about the search page?”

And then it’s a race. It’s like, “oh, we don’t have the budget, we don’t have the time.” It’s too hard. There’s stigma around it – it’s too hard. And I think there are some platforms out there that offer search-like capabilities, but they only offer it through the lens of a developer. And so now you’re having to have these development cycles and sprints, where it is hard. It is not marketer friendly. And so in that case, the marketer goes, well, I’m gonna throw my hands up. Maybe we’ll just leave it for next year’s budget. 

Jae:  That’s great context. I’d love to get into the nitty gritty here then for just a second. Can you give us some examples? You know, either your own, or stories you’ve heard from being in the industry so long, where search was not considered as critical and it ended up creating a non-ideal situation – again, either from that brand perspective we were talking about, or even from a revenue perspective.

Pete: Yeah, I’ve been in the consulting world for a long time. So  I was working with the client – a big Fortune 100, maybe 200 healthcare company.  They were in the middle of replatforming.They were moving to Sitecore, they were rebranding their entire site. They were doing a whole new site build. It was all greenfield development. 

They talked about search and they talked about what they wanted for their search results, but at the end of the day, they were super focused on all the other aspects of the site. So what it boiled down to was that we got all of the site launched and it was actually a pretty successful project. But once we launched, the client came back and was like, “hey, we’re realizing that we didn’t do  a great job at surfacing up our providers. We didn’t do a great job at surfacing up some of our services through the search.” And their search was really basic. It was returning just content, basically, of query hits, but it wasn’t taking into consideration different types of content, like providers – you know, geospatial search is really important.

It evolved down to they were actually losing customers to a competing healthcare plan, because users couldn’t find the information they were looking for. And so we did this mad dash where we had to build out an entire search experience. But you know what, from a lessons learned perspective, that was from a consulting company where we rebuilt the wheel. We didn’t think about using a product. And I think had we thought about using a product like SearchStax Studio, we could have saved ourselves months of time by not re-engineering the search wheel. 

Jae: Yeah. That’s a very tangible risk, what you’re describing. That’s a great example where it wasn’t really about revenue as much as it was that brand perspective. I’m sure it was related to revenue, but it’s not like it was a direct tie. It was a more indirect one, and so the brand itself is suffering. 

Pete: Well, if your brand is suffering, your revenue’s gonna suffer.

Jae: Exactly. Even if you’re not measuring that top line revenue, you’re looking at it from the impact. So how can organizations get better at kind of, quote unquote “doing search?” Especially if they’re smaller organizations? You just mentioned a really large enterprise that you’re working with, but you know, these smaller organizations, they don’t have search experts like the larger ones. They can’t maybe afford that. And even in the bigger organizations, how can they get better  in doing search in a way that’s more nimble and agile?

Pete: I think part of that is changing perspective, right? The search page is largely regarded in a lot of organizations as a redheaded stepchild or, you know, second best, maybe it’s even third – it’s a third class citizen to some extent.

And I think changing the perspective that your search experience is just as important, if not maybe a hair bit more important, than your homepage. That if you need your homepage to be top notch, your search page should also be top notch, and your search experience should be top notch.

So I think, how do organizations get better at doing search well? I think changing the perspective that your search result experience is really important. And so what that means is stepping back a second and saying, “how do we make this the best experience possible?” And you can  do that by looking at products in the marketplace.

You do not have to reinvent the wheel. And I think that’s where people think that there’s a lot of work there because it’s like, “oh, we gotta redo our search results page, maybe we need to reinvent the wheel.”  I think start small, understand that there are solutions out there that have accelerators, that have built in things, and maybe – maybe, just maybe, that accelerator provides that cookie cutter feel that isn’t exactly what I’m looking for, but it starts the conversation with the visitors of improving your search results. And so over time, in an iterative process, you can start to elaborate. You can make that experience better, but you’re not reinventing the wheel. 

Let’s take SearchStax Studio as an example. The ability to have the analytics at your fingertips pretty fast by just implementing the accelerator is valuable information.  Most companies who are re-engineering the search wheel, they’re not building that analytic experience. In fact, you’re missing that analytic experience most of the time. So being able to capture that analytic really fast is a huge driver towards  getting to the point where you’re doing search well.

Jae: I have an analogy that I’m gonna close with, but before I get to that, one final question in that regard is, you know, we’re talking about things that are helping us to be more nimble and agile. You’re just describing things that are helping us be that way. But in that vein, is being nimble and agile – is it critical in a non e-commerce context? In other words, it’s never really been that big of a deal before – why should we be focused on that now? 

And let me preface it with one thing. You mentioned earlier with that one site, there was a really basic search experience at the end of the day, right? And I still see evidence of that everywhere. Not only on product search and e-commerce and online retail, but I see that across all these  informational websites. And especially smaller companies, like mid-market and smaller enterprises. So why is it important for them to be nimble and agile right now? Why can’t they just kind of continue to do what they’re doing with that sort of basic search experience? 

Pete: Speed is everything. Being nimble and agile is like – it saves you time, saves you money – I mean, that’s the whole reason why we want to use tools is because it allows us to react in almost a real time  experience.

If you’re having to manually gather analytics, if you’re having to have a developer manually boost rules – because that’s all you can do with your current search, is have a developer set a boost on the field – that’s going to cause you to wait two or three weeks. And we’re kind of at the moment now where people want things now, people want change now.

This might not really be related, but we talk about being nimble and agile, and there’s a really great situation happening right now where because a product out there was not nimble and agile in their search, it caused a complete breakdown in the ability to buy tickets for events. And we’re seeing that play out right now because of bad search experiences, and companies getting in their head that they think they know better, when reality is it should have been just a simple search experience  to purchase a ticket. 

Jae: Right, and even in just the purely informational, non-transactional website, what I’m hearing you getting at is the tool is gonna enable you to keep up. You mentioned healthcare as an example. Let’s say I just wanna make updates to the search experience based on new information – you know, we just recently are coming out of a pandemic, there were all these updates that are continually needed. And then even in something like higher education where it’s like, what are the summer programs, right? So being able to actually move quickly is important, and it seems like a lot of people just weren’t even aware that that was something that mattered, right? 

Pete: Healthcare is a great example, Jae. The pandemic taught us a lot.I was still working in the consulting world when the pandemic hit, and I think every single one of our healthcare clients spent hundreds of thousands of dollars reengineering their search experiences. And it was because they needed to be able to get COVID-19 as their number one result to get information out. They needed to ensure that people knew how to use their search bar and get the content that they needed. So I would say the pandemic really changed the way that companies, especially in the healthcare industry,  realized that “hey, search is really important to get information out.”

Jae: And even if it’s not on the scale of covid, that’s  constantly happening year round. 

So I think the last thing then – I want to kind of close with an analogy. You mentioned something earlier related to kind of the bigger aspect of the digital transformation investments that people were putting into the rest of the site.

There’s all these other brand investments around the navigation and the chatbots and the other components of the web experience, and the analogy I was thinking through as you were talking about that was, it’s kind of like the difference between a public transportation route and being able to Uber somewhere. Because if you have all these existing – if I’m just gonna use a browsing capability on a website, those are things that have been predefined, preconfigured, set up for me in such a way to lead me to specific content if I follow a very prescriptive path, just like I can hop on the bus and get from point A to point B after transiting across these different lines and then taking the subway. That’s a very fixed, predefined sort of set of things. If I’m looking at search as more like ride sharing, like Uber, I can just be very direct about the destination I’m trying to get to, and I can just say “this is where I want to go.”

For example, if I use public transportation and I jump off at this particular station and I walk 10 miles to the rest of it, there’s no visibility. Even if you could track me through the entire system, once I’m off the system, I’m out. So you don’t know where I’m going. In the Uber case, I can track exactly the point you’re trying to get to.

And I think that’s an important analogy because when we think about no result searches, for example, or even going back to the analytics analogy – we wanna know what you are actually thinking and searching, looking for. That’s the more direct analogy of like, I’m gonna Uber to this point.

And to me, what I think is lost a lot of times is understanding that the intent is a lot more clear when you look at the analytics. You can get a lot more insights about the intent of an individual just by looking at their search behavior rather than assuming that just because they’re browsing a certain way – of course you can get some context about them, but it’s not gonna really give you the real sort of specific data you’re looking for.

Pete: Yeah. And it also gives us an opportunity to explore the edge engine, right? So when you’re on a website and you’re using navigation, you’re taking the public transit analogy, you’re only focused on that one path.

Whereas with search, we’re able to tell what destination you’re going to, but we can also bubble up the edge cases. And if you think about the Uber app, right, like along my route, it’s telling me, “Hey, you know, there’s these things that might be of interest to me or points of interest around the area that I’m looking for.”

And so our search experience can do the same thing. We might wanna make sure that that person gets to the content they’re looking for, but we can also expose them to the fringe of other things that we might be able to surface. 

Jae: Exactly. And that’s, I think again, in the informational websites, we don’t see nearly enough of that. If it’s not e-commerce, we just don’t see enough of it, you know? And I think what we’re basically saying is that there’s a new bar for what a good search experience is across the board, not just for commerce and retail. 

Well, this was a really fun chat. I really appreciate the time and I’m looking forward to doing another one of these soon.

Pete: Yeah, me too. Thanks, Jae.

SearchStax helps companies create exceptional search experiences managing Solr infrastructure on the backend via SearchStax Cloud and site search on the front end with SearchStax Studio. Interested in learning more?