Higher Logic Blog

3 Search Engine Must-Haves When Selecting Online Community Software

Written by Joshua Paul | June 3, 2011 at 6:15 PM

Search engines are the number one way that people find information, products, and people on the web. The same is true for your organization's private social network. Search engines and their search boxes that appear in the sidebar, upper corner, or center of your header have become so easy, so ubiquitous, so mundanely there, that their high level of use by your customer or members to navigate your online community can be forgotten.

There is also a mystery to search engines that many marketers and customer service professionals don't fully understand. This has made B2B and association marketers passive when looking at the search capabilities during the enterprise online community selection process – everyone just expects it to work; After all, search is search.

Having worked with B2B and social networking platforms for over 10 years, I know this is definitely not the case. Often, this approach can lead to implementing a platform that your customers or members don't find useful. And you may have to live with it until your contract is up and possibly beyond.

To help marketers, community managers, and membership professionals make the most educated decisions, here are three of the most important things to look for in an online community search engine:

Must-Have #1: Fully-Indexed Content Across the Entire Online Community

Many lower end online community platforms enable your company and users to add tags and descriptions to your content, discussions, media, and other information in your online community. Then, when users enter something in the community search box, the platform searches across all of the titles, tags, and descriptions to compile the results. However, limiting the search to only document titles, tags, and descriptions can frustrate your customers and hurt your brand for two reasons:

    1. Not everyone fills out the tag and description information when they add resources to your community. This leaves some resources floating around as "unsearchable orphans" in your community that can be reached through the community's navigation, but won't appear in the search results for customers or members.
    2. Not all users enter tags and descriptions consistently. For example, if you have a customer community for your online content management product, some customers or staff may tag for a CMS-related document as "content management software," while others may tag it as a "content management system."

When choosing an online community platform, look for a fully-cataloged search engine built into the platform. This means that when a user does a search, the engine combs every word in the content, documents (including PDFs), discussions, listserv email attachments, tags, blogs, descriptions, and more. This way your customers or members have a much greater chance of find the information they want in your community and relying on it as a valuable resources.

Must-Have #2: "Google Alerts" Type Personalization

An important way to keep customers or members engaged and coming back to your online community is through email notifications. Many online community software providers allow users to select sections of the online community that they would like to receive periodic notifications about. However, if you address broad topics in your community or have a complex product that your online community supports, your audience will not find the section-based notifications to be enough.

When selecting online community software, look for a platform that provides keyword-specific email content alerts. This allows your users to get notification at a frequency that they select whenever a specific keyword or phrase is added to the community in a document, discussion, or other resource – just like Google Alerts.

For instance, if you are in a community of medical professionals, you may not have time to dig through community when you get an email summary of the section you marked as important to you. However, you will find it more valuable when you receive an email alert that a peer posted information that references the drug therapy you are researching for a patient or a rare disease you are working to treat.

Must-Have #3: Consistent Security Controls

When a customer or member conducts a search in your online community, the search results that are displayed should only be resources and discussions which that user is allowed by see. By nature, enterprise social platforms have multiple layers of security and access. Some groups are for employees only, some are for your boards and committees, others are for your customer advisory groups, while certain segments of customers and members have access to an entirely separate set of tools and information.

The following are two things you don't want to happen in your online community when a user conducts a search:

    1. The search results appear and give them access to information, groups, and discussions that they should not have access to.
    2. The search results pull up all relevant results from across your online community. However, when the user clicks on the link for a resource or discussion that they don't have access to, they get an error screen or a "Sorry. Turn back now" message.

When picking an online community platform, ensure that no matter what term or phrase the users search for, lists as an interest in their profiles, or sets up an email notification for, they only see the search results and information that is appropriate for their level of security access or group affiliation.

Are these things that are on your radar when thinking about a social community platform for your customers or members? Add your thoughts in the comments below.