Search optimization for your mail box

Efficiency Fetish

It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a geek but what you might not know about me is that I have a serious efficiency fetish. That doesn’t sound right exactly but what I mean is I really need things to work efficiently. I can’t stand extra steps and time wasting. When a client or a friend asks me to email them something that I’ve already sent I find it very annoying. It’s especially bothersome when they want something I sent them within the last few days – stop that.

Did you even try to find it?

Now I understand that a lot of people are very busy and that they get a ton of email and I can even look past the fact that some folks maintain somewhat disorganized inboxes. That being said sometime I want to scream, “did you even seriously try to look for it?!?!”

What I’m really asking is did they bother to use the search function in their mail client? Did you even know that Microsoft Outlook has a search function? It does as does every free web-based email service.

Why don’t people search?

It may be because on the rare occasion that one does run a search most of the time they don’t find what they are looking for. Why is this?

I assume that it is because most people don’t create email messages that are meant to be searched for. That is that they are not formatted to be easily retrieved by a search engine. Clearly Google’s search technology is not the reason that one can’t find a message sent to their gmail account. The reason they can’t find it probably has more to do with the fact that the sender wrote a poor subject and the content is likely to be equally poor in it’s ability to be searched.

How can we fix this?

The Wrong Way:

I think the wrong way is to outsource the problem. There is an entire industry that has grown up around the idea of creating easier to search email archives.  That is an industry that is trying to devise a more accurate search but the problem is so rarely the search algorithms or even the search parameters.

My opposition to this  goes back to my hatred of inefficiency. Here we have people capitalizing on a problem rather than solving it. I’m in no way opposed to people making money – I’m opposed to people doing so without providing a truly valuable service.

My Observations

The problem, as I see it, is that we send email willy-nilly without so much as a thought about it being found later. Email, like their younger cousin the tweet, are put out and forgot about, in abundance. In fact more and more of them are being put out without any thought.

For several years now there has been a small dedicated, (some would say crazy), group of people that have pushed for some sort of formal guide to email writing. They want people to think about what they are writing and to only send emails that are necessary. Some go as far as to say – unless you’d send it in a postal letter don’t send it in an email. I’m not behind that idea, in fact I prefer email to phone calls, (for business), because you have a written record of the conversation. It also saves me time because if I’m on the phone I’ve got to write down what they are saying anyhow.

Teach Our Children

Here is a thought – when I was in school we were taught how to properly format and write business letters and the difference between them and less formal letters. Why not teach kids how to write a proper email? I’m sure that in some more progressive school districts this has already begun but I’m just as sure that they are not teaching searchability. If we learned how to write searchable emails we’ll end up with more thoughtful, better structured, and more worthwhile communications. The best part is we’ll also be able to search through our inbox or archive and find what we are looking for.

What about the old people?

When one is trained to work at an office they are asked if they know MS Office and how to use a multi-line phone why not ask if they know how to write a searchable email? If they don’t train them. If you’ve got to train someone to use your system why not make searchable email part of your system?


Subject Matters

Searchable mail is just as simple as the searchable web – create an informative subject that matches the content. If your content is time specific, say it’s about an event, place the date of the event in the subject. A good example of this is when I book a photo job I send an email with the date of the job in the subject.

The Content

What you put in the body should always be informative too. As a gmail user I have conversation threads, that is emails that are back and forth replies about the same subject. Google groups these for me and that’s one of the functions I love the most about gmail. Even when email clients don’t do this they usually append previous messages to the body of an email (gmail does both) which means you have a continual record with the latest additions on the top. The benefit of this is that by adding content you’re creating more stuff that can be searched which is great because you end up with a more searchable file most of the time. The downside is that if someone changes the subject but not the thread you end up with conflicting data and less searchability.

So when writing an email we should all be aware that if we’re changing the subject we should create a new email to address that subject.

Ambiguity is ugly

Just because you anticipate a long thread with lots of back and forth, there is still no excuse for ambiguity in emails. If you just physically talked to a coworker about a subject that doesn’t mean that you should ever send an email that doesn’t address what you were talking about or that refers to discussion without putting into the body of the email what was said. Is that a pain in the ass? Sure but what happens in 3 months or 4 years when you don’t remember what was said and are trying to piece together what an email means? All of a sudden your minor pain in the ass is a huge problem either because of a he-said-she-said situation of because your memory has failed and you don’t remember if it your coworker told you it was the red wire that needs cut or the black one.

Give Searchability a Try

So now that you are aware of the issue will you try to make your emails more searchable? I’m sure that if you do you’ll find you get fewer requests for you to resend the same email you sent the day before. Give it a try, spread the word, and let’s make the world a better, (more searchable), place.