Can help authors afford to ignore Google?

Web applications are slowly eating away at the market share previously held by desktop apps. Forums and wikis are opening the doors to robust user communities. Meanwhile, tools such as Adobe AIR and Microsoft Silverlight are blurring the boundaries between the desktop and Internet, allowing non-connected users to sync up with online content.

The result? More and more content is being moved from local machines to the World Wide Web.

As a result, users are drifting away from product-specific Search functionality and are embracing the power of Google instead.

What will users find when they use Google to search for your help content?

How Google views help

If you are developing help content that will be visible to the world via the Internet, you need to consider the implications.

Just as Internet Explorer was not built as a help viewer, Google was not designed to give special treatment to help content. That means the Google search algorithm treats your help content just like any other web page.

This isn't a bad thing, necessarily. For example, I was recently working with a web application and had a problem completing a task. The product-specific help didn't contain a helpful solution. A Google search, however, provided a help topic for a tool developed by a completely different vendor; a competitor to the tool I was using. My esteem for the competing product rose considerably.

If you are the competitor in this case, Google's non-biased (sort-of) treatment is a good thing. But if your help is insufficient, Google might send users straight to your competition.

If you are considering moving your help content to the Internet, keep this non-preferential treatment in mind. You need to ensure that your help is thorough and that it shows up in search results.

SEO for help authors

SEO, or "Search Engine Optimization," will soon be a common term among help authors. Why? Because in order to avoid it, you have to ignore search engines like Google.

(Ignoring Google is bad. Users like Google.)

So what is SEO and how does it apply to help authors?

In a nutshell, SEO means optimizing your online help content so that the search engines can find the appropriate topics to meet user expectations.

Google uses keywords and page rank to generate search results. This is WAY different from the full-text search provided by most help authoring tools. Your content must include the words your user types into Google's Search field, or at least synonyms that Google recognizes. And, your content must be authoritative enough so that Google lists your help near the top of the results instead of help for a competitor.

Keyword optimization

Keyword optimization can be tricky. Technical writers and consumers often choose different words to express an idea. A user might search on "personal information" instead of "client data" and find nothing in the search results. This is a problem for both ranked search results and full-text search.

Even if Google's search algorithm makes the connection between "personal information" and "client data," chances are your help topic will appear many pages deep, after websites that have nothing to do with your product.

To rank high in the search results, your content should include the exact phrases that users are searching for. This means leveraging tools like WordTracker or examining search data from user forums to find out what phrases users are entering into the search field.

Topic titles are especially important to Google's algorithm. If your help topic titles do not include the exact search phrase, that topic won't rank high in the results. Hyperlinks should also use the search phrase and point to information relevant to the search keyword.

But be careful. If you overuse a keyword in a single topic, you might trigger Google's SPAM filter and your content will not appear anywhere near the top of the search results.

Page rank

If you want your help to be visible in Google, pay attention to your page rank. The page ranking system is fundamental to Google's algorithm. If the URL for your help is ranked highly for specific keywords, your results will appear above those from competitors.

Page rank is determined by a number of factors. The most important is inbound and outbound links. For example, if you are writing help for an audio web application, links from audio websites and forums to your URL will increase your Google clout and bump your help topics up in the search results.

Help authors can leverage existing online content to gain page rank. Putting the help under the same URL as a product forum and corporate website would likely improve the page rank of all three, assuming the content is somewhat related. (Google likes to see a consistent theme.)

Speculation? Perhaps...

I know I'm going out on a limb with this discussion. Most help authors won't need to consider such issues any time soon. And site-specific checkboxes can be enabled so that users can Google only content from your website.

However, many help authors already moving help to the Internet, or are at least considering it.

For web applications it seems the natural thing to do.

And as for those site-specific checkboxes... do you really want a single checkbox to separate you from your competitors? A checkbox that users must remember to click?

When Google provides an answer to a user's question by showing them a competitor's help, that competitor gains immediate mindshare without spending a single advertising dollar. The perceived ease of use for that product increases, and customers will consider whether switching products would make them more productive.

How many customers can you win over just by making your help available via the Internet?

And how many customers can you afford to lose when your competitors provide the answers?

Thoughts, anyone?