Swiftype’s Riley: Site Search Can Make News More Compelling

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You’re publisher of a local news site that recently featured a strong opinion piece against your state letting substitute teachers into the classroom with no more than a high school diploma. The piece received a lot of comments, much of them supportive. But how do you keep the issue alive so it reaches users who could help influence public opinion in your long-game effort to raise the state standard for substitute teachers and enhance your site’s influence? The solution: Make sure you have a search engine that helps you analyze your audience and lets you capture and rank that opinion piece for maximum, long-term impact in return to relevant queries.

To find out what custom site search can accomplish for local news sites — including monetizing editorial content — I went to Matt Riley, co-founder with Quin Hoxie of Swiftype. Riley’s three-year-old, San Francisco-based company helps thousands of websites and apps like our hypothetical publisher make better decisions about how to maximize the impact of their content, know and understand the likes of their users, and increase their level of engagement. My Q&A with Riley:

You say publishers should “take control of their searches” — what does that mean?
Publishers should have the ability to customize and fine-tune the search engine on their website in the same way they are able to customize the rest of the user experience. Typically a website’s CMS allows the site admin to make changes to many aspects of the site, but the search experience historically has been an exception — in most cases it is a black box. Swiftype gives a new level of control to site owners by allowing them to manipulate search results on a keyword-by-keyword basis, define their own relevance algorithms, and many other customizations — all without writing code. Platform-provided search boxes (like the ones that come with a WordPress site, for example) and Google Site Search installations don’t give publishers control of this nature.

Google offers customized searches. How do yours compare?
Google uses its own algorithm entirely and doesn’t give you the flexibility or control to curate the experience on your own website. So if you want to add or boost content for a specific search experience, like when your business is launching a new product or featuring content that has high reviews at the top, then you’ll be out of luck with Google. Further, Google will be able to tell you basic site search analytics data, but it won’t be able to share deeper analytics that are meaningful for marketers and customer support teams to know. A good example of this is showing you popular searches that don’t currently return any search results, which produces a very frustrating user experience, as almost any consumer is familiar with.

Let’s say I’m the publisher of a newspaper in a top-100 market that’s trying to fend off competition from a couple of upstart independent pure-play sites focused on specific neighborhoods. How can Swiftype help me maximize my editorial strengths, which are built around a regional approach, with a bigger staff of reporters and editors than any of the pure-plays and a legacy of serving the community going back decades?
It’s a given that your staff will have a deep understanding about what’s going on in those neighborhoods. However, with site search analytics, you can pick up on topics and trends that your readers want to learn more about because those sites won’t have the volume of indent data to glean insights from. You’ll be able to cover more nuanced stories that you know will generate reader interest and loyalty because you will have known that that was content that they had searched for.

Because your team is larger and thus producing more content than the independent upstarts, you will need to place higher emphasis on how your search algorithm works so your readers can find the content they’re looking for. This is done by choosing which signals get more weight when determining how search results are ordered. For example, publishers can choose to have content that is published more recently be weighted higher in results, or content that has received a significant amount of social engagement. We’ve handled all of the heavy lifting from the technical side so all a publisher or editor has to do is click and drag a dial for the signals to which they want to add more weight.

Finally, larger publishers typically have more costs, so they should look at their website as a revenue stream. Improved pageviews and time on site can help with that.

Okay, let’s turn tables. I’m an upstart “indie.” How can Swiftype help me promote my editorial content that’s built on deep coverage of “downtown,” the historic center of the region that’s making a comeback driven by reverse migration of millennials buying dilapidated row houses, attracting “knowledge” industries, and helping to grow or attract arts and culture and new shops and restaurants?
Site search analytics will certainly give you interesting insights and help you pick your priorities on where to spend your time. But in this example, using our results ranking tool will be great if your team has a lot of coverage focused on those topics because then you can make sure the article or articles that are covering this issue are at the very top of the top queries related to this topic. It will be important for you to choose that the article about the arts and culture goes above one about knowledge industries because you know that your readers are engaging with that content more.

Also, upstart indies should consider the brand value they can generate with an easy search experience. Having a nice-looking search experience helps them build a reputation of being tech-savvy and more with-it than the more established players.

Early search algorithms were built on the “like” model, which can send the searcher a lot of useless returns. How does Swiftype avoid this?
Every Swiftype-powered search engine starts out using our proprietary search algorithm, which was developed by our search engineers over a period of years. We use a number of signals to ensure results are relevant — from the most basic, like how recently an article was published, to more advanced ones like how users have behaved in the past after they clicked a result. The key to building a relevant search experience is blending all these complex signals together and ensuring your site search algorithm is always improving.

Local news sites are increasingly adopting the WordPress content management system. WP’s default search tool does not get raves. Can you help sites on WP that want a better search tool?
Absolutely. We have a WordPress plugin that makes it incredibly simple to replace WordPress’ default search tool with one powered by Swiftype. When using our plugin you can be up and running with a new, more relevant and more customizable search feature in a matter of minutes.

How about the publisher of multiple sites in one region — can you synchronize searches across all the sites?
Yes. We call this federated search — the ability to bring content from multiple websites into a single search experience. We have the ability to very easily do this by having you just tell us which site domains you want included in your search engine. You can even blacklist and whitelist content from each individual site to ensure that certain sections are or are not included in the federated search experience.

Local news sites are desperate to know who their users are and what kind of editorial content they really like. How do you help out there?
We help local news sites review a handful of key site search analytics. First is their top searches, which shares what people are searching for. We also display which searches deliver “no results.” This is important for site owners to know so they can put a plan in place to remove them. Common ways to address are writing content that relates to those queries, adding existing content to results from those queries through our custom results rankings tool, and/or using our synonyms tool to link like terms/phrases with a specific result. Importantly for news publishers, these analytics are updated in real time, so you don’t have to wait days to react to a frequent search that may be trending.

Do you have any local news clients?
We power search for Bangor (Maine) Daily News, which has been a long-time supporter of our product. In fact, it was one of our very first paying customers.

What would Swiftype cost an “indie” pure-play with one neighborhood site?
It would depend on that website’s traffic, but it’s anywhere from $19 to $249 per month.

What’s next for Swiftype that could be a big help for local news sites that want to not only reach a bigger audience but also know details about audience composition and what content the audience wants to see on the site?
We’re going to help local news sites better monetize their search box by giving them the ability to include native ads, or advertorial or sponsored content to search results. We’re also taking a hard look at how publishers can leverage site search analytics to keep their readers engaged with their content longer.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.