Thursday, July 21, 2016

What Desire Paths Say About Websites

I’m fascinated by desire paths. In the video below, Tom Hulme discusses designing based on desire paths in dirt. But desire paths aren’t always paths that we can see from satellite photos. Since I do quite a bit or work with websites, I spend a significant amount of time looking at website statistics. In particular, I look at the phrases people type into search engines. There are a number of search phrases that I have targeted. When I see these show up, this tells me that what I’m doing is working. But things get more interesting when I begin looking at the other phrases.

Not long ago, on a church website, I saw that someone had visited the site after typing the phrase, “hanging of the greens service ideas.” On one hand, this is of little importance. At some point, the church had positioned itself on this desire path by holding a “hanging of the greens service” and someone posting something about it on the website. You can be sure that the person following this path isn’t going to visit the church and probably won’t even send an e-mail. What makes it interesting is that they typed this search in July. Someone is thinking about Christmas early.

The same site gets several searches for something like “procedure for someone joining a church.” It also gets something like, “what to say to the pastor when you want to join a church.” Again, I don’t know that these people will have any other interaction with the church, since the search doesn’t include the name of the church or the town. What this desire line tells me is some of what people need from a church website. What people want from a church website are answers to the questions they are afraid to ask. Sure, it’s great for them to know about the pot luck coming up, or the camp for their children, or the senior citizen trip. It’s great for them to have inspirational messages and encouragement to read their Bibles. It’s great for them to have easy access to service times and information on how to contact staff members and ministry leaders. But those aren’t the questions people are asking. I have never seen the search phrase, “when does worship start”.

But it’s not just how to do stuff. They’re also asking questions about doctrine. One list of keyphrases includes “when God ignores you”, “Baptist fasting rules”, and “does time exist in eternity”. As a small group leader at my church, I like to think that we can address questions in our small groups that wouldn’t be addressed during preaching. People don’t ask questions during preaching. But some questions won’t be asked of a Sunday school teacher either. It pains me when I see that phrase “when God ignores you.” I have no doubt that there is someone is suffering through something and they don’t feel comfortable asking their pastor or their Sunday school teacher, but they typed it into a search engine, because they knew they didn’t have to worry about what the machine thought of them. I don’t know who this person is or where they are from, and I may never know, but I may have helped them, because something I wrote happened to be on their desire path.

When I can, I try to pave over desire paths. Sometimes, I’ll see a phrase pop up that hasn’t been addressed very well. The search might take them to an event notice, or a quote from a song, or the title of a sermon, but that’s all there is. While we can’t do anything to help the person who typed in that phrase the first time, I figure that if one person typed it, there will be others. To pave over this path, I like to post an answer to their question. That may mean reposting information that’s already on the website, but optimized for the question they asked, but often that means doing the research to find a good answer. And it doesn’t hurt to put a link from the page they found the first time to the page that addresses the question more completely. In time, more and more people will find the information they need, because the website is along their desire path.