Great Technical Writing: Improve Document Searches

Mar 14


Barry Millman, Ph.D.

Barry Millman, Ph.D.

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Searches in User Documents (manuals, etc.) often fail because the Reader uses different words for a concept than the author uses. Since the Reader's words do not appear in the document, the document search mechanism cannot find them, resulting in frustration. This article describes a User-friendly technique for improving searches, without having to change the Users' behavior or the search software.



People use the words that they know when they speak,Great Technical Writing: Improve Document Searches Articles write, or search. It's folly to try to force the Reader to use the writer's terminology; the Reader simply might not know the "proper" term. Forced to use unknown words, the Reader will find the User Document to be arrogant, or at least difficult to use. For example, a User Manual for a word processing program will probably use the word "formatting" when dealing with character fonts and size, as well as page layout. But suppose that your Reader uses the word "appearance" to refer to these topics. How can we get the search mechanism to provide the correct result if the Reader searches for "appearance"?


The technical solution would be to convert the document search software from being an "exact term" search to a "Thesaurus Search." In a Thesaurus Search, the User enters a word that he/she knows, and the search returns synonyms or references to the synonyms in the document. Thus a properly set up Thesaurus Search should return references to "formatting" if the Reader searches for "appearance."

Unfortunately, the Thesaurus Search is rarely available, and creating one would require changes to the existing search program. A low tech solution may be the best answer.


For this technique, you need to put synonyms of the author's word ("formatting") on the pages that you want the search to find. Such synonyms may include "appearance," "design," and "layout." This is a simple, effective solution.

You can find appropriate synonyms by using the thesaurus that is a component of most word processors and of many libraries. Select the synonyms that your Readers are likely to use. "Likely to use" is based on your analysis of your Reader. This leads us to the next question: How do you put the synonyms on the page?


Technically savvy writers may ask "why not use hidden text for the synonyms?" The benefit is that hidden text will not "clutter up" the page. So, if in the sections of the User Document where "formatting" is presented, the writer put the word "appearance" as hidden text (assuming the search utility would find this hidden information), then the following will happen:

1. The Reader searches for "appearance."

2. The search takes the Reader to the "formatting" section of the document.

3. The Reader wonders "How did I get here?" The word that he/she searched for ("appearance") does not appear on the page, since it is hidden.

Given that a goal of a User Document is to answer the Reader's questions, then doing anything that causes him/her to ask another question ("How did I get here?") is counter-productive. Hidden synonyms are not the best answer.


Hiding the synonyms is not a good idea. It's better to let the Reader know what's going on. The easiest way is to add a line of text on the page where the topic appears. This line of text begins with the phrase, "You may know this as..."

To continue our "formatting" example, our explanatory synonym phrase becomes, "You may know this as appearance, layout, or design." A search for "appearance" brings the Reader to the "Formatting" section. Upon seeing the phrase "You may know this as appearance, layout, or design," the Reader knows why the search found this location. The search satisfied the Reader, and did not add uncertainty to the situation.


The goal of all good User Documents is to improve the Reader's experience with the product. By using synonyms for "technical" terms, the writer makes the Reader's document searches more effective, since the needed topics will be found using the Reader's words. By not hiding the synonyms, the Reader is not confused as to why he/she arrived at that place in the document. The result is a better experience with the document and the product.