Watching a recent football game, I imagined two very different teams: one called â€œThe Hordersâ€ and the other, â€œThe Huntersâ€. In the game, it takes planning and skill to carry a football a few yards. Thereâ€™s interference and distractions. Scantily clad dancing girls are screaming cheers nearby.
How different, I wonder, is this from finding something in search engines? You have ads on the sidelines and pages to push through while trying to get to your goal. If you happen to find something that looks like what you want, you click on it and race down the field in a blaze of glory, until you realize youâ€™re lost. Worse, you were just sacked by a web page piled high with gobs of stuff and tiny text soldiers are jumping on your head.
Itâ€™s Not the Search Enginesâ€™ Fault
Believe it or not, search engines and user centered web design have a common goal. They want to provide the best experience for their web site visitor. Even better, they want that experience to be productive, satisfying and memorable.
For their part, search engine technology changes often as they find ways to better understand the subject of each web page. Not only that, they have a keen interest in how you think and how you search for things.
A user centered web site designer is thinking the same sweet thoughts on your behalf. They lie awake at night worrying about putting form fields in the proper order and placing links or call to action buttons in places where theyâ€™ll help someone with a task. They, like search engine developers, know you want specific, accurate information at the push of a button. You want it preferably without running around the site in circles. You want it now.
Enter Coach SEO
On the other hand, most web site owners want other things. They want sales, traffic, popularity, requests for quotes, newsletter signups, and number one rank in search engines. In the 1990â€™s there was this weird belief, based on a baseball movie, that if you build it, they will come. The rude awakening that other people built a web site, selling the same product, gave birth to search engine optimization, otherwise known as SEO.
The job of an SEO professional is to make your web site easy for search engines to find it, add it to their database for retrieval, and make it appear near the top of search results pages by helping robots understand the topic of each page.
Initially this was simple, because there was less competition. Fewer people were using the Internet to buy cars and books. We werenâ€™t so greedy either. In those days, a web site with 18 point glassy blue text in all caps against a wood-grain background with animated spinning logo was happily tolerated to learn how to get rich quick.
Therefore, the craft of making web pages rank well in search engines was the number one the goal, not making a web site that people would enjoy using.
Then Came the Human Factor
On the heels of SEO came search engine marketing (SEM). Search engines and directories permit paying for rank and keyword bidding. SEM tackles this marketing arm by guiding companies through the maze of options.
Competing industries determined to be number one in searches also created a technique that forced submitting web pages designed only for search engine robots and another version for people. Some SEO methods manipulate content intended for robots to make sense of - not people.
Of course, this wild web page bonanza was going to backfire, and it did. While some SEM companies promised rank guarantees, smart web site owners were noticing something peculiar was happening. People were leaving their web site as soon as they arrived. When you pay for every keyword click thru, and itâ€™s not generating revenue in return, the accounting department notices.
Slowly, quietly and smartly, some SEOâ€™s began to look for people in the usability industry to help them. Clients were unhappy with results that were not the SEOâ€™s fault. They demanded financial figures to prove SEO would bring a return on their investment. What they didnâ€™t understand was that though the SEO battled the war for that coveted spot, they had no control over the visitorsâ€™ journey afterwards. Thatâ€™s up to the design team.
7thpixel.com (www.7thpixel.com) saw the light. â€œPracticing SEM without addressing usability issues is like buying ad space during the Super Bowl and then turning the lights off. It's hard to do business when your customers can't find what you're selling, â€ says company President, Gregg Banse.
Mirror Mirrorâ€¦Who Has the Best Web Site of Them All?
Once upon a time, few people cared about search engine optimization and the web site visitor experience.
Then suddenly web sites stopped being online brochures. They started to do stuff, like let you choose the make, model, color and floor mats for your next car. Or, sell your living room couch or bid for Elvis records. Suddenly, Internet software applications are everywhere and they not only must function, but also be ready for use by a huge variety of people, including special needs customers.
Todayâ€™s top web design companies offer search engine optimization and marketing, as well as usability testing and skilled user centered design staff. Theyâ€™re hired to construct a web site that achieves business requirements, while also surviving an uphill battle in search engines. Their usability specialist is a bonus for a clientâ€™s long term success because their input increases conversions. Pioneering user experience design skills include persuasive design, copywriting, information architecture, and creating an emotional connection with web site visitors. Itâ€™s not just about colors anymore.
7th Pixel provides SEO/SEM services, and theyâ€™ll bring in a usability specialist, â€œFor our client's sake, â€œ adds Gregg. â€œSometimes, despite our best intentions, we're too close to the project. A fresh pair of eyes without predisposition can help us evaluate and correct something we either overlooked or dismissed as inconsequential. That helps us provide a better product to our clients and that's good for business. â€
Another hot demand for user centered design that focuses on a specific task is â€œlanding pages. â€ Not all Internet advertisements point to a home page. Todayâ€™s trend is to send the visitor to a page inside the web site that helps them achieve their task quickly and effectively.
For example, a college site is searchable by its name, or they may purchase a Google Ad intended to come up on a search for â€œcollege catalogsâ€. When the ad appears, instead of taking the visitor to the homepage, where they have to hunt for the course catalog and learn the web site, the â€œlanding pageâ€ will take them directly to where they can download or order it. Even more, a user centered landing page will direct the visitor to other points of interest they may not have thought of, such as admission schedule dates, campus life highlights or adult night class options.
Christine Churchill, President of KeyRelevance, (www.keyrelevance.com) helps companies purchase keywords and ads, as well as create productive landing pages. She feels, “From my perspective usability and optimization are so intertwined I can't look at a site and not wear both hats. Improvements we make to help a user navigate the site also improve it for search engines. A search engine spider crawling the site is the ultimate usability test. "
The Proof Is in the Profit
User testing and poor conversions drive some web site redesign projects, where the site is pulled back into the shop. Customer needs and business objectives are re-addressed. Matt Bailey, Web Marketing Director for The Karcher Group (www.thekarchergroup.com), describes a recent series of redesign projects.
"All were redesigned using usability principles and testing, all have experienced some crazy success in sales simply in going live with the new site - even before any rankings were touched. "
Getting inside the mind of the searcher is something they do at Enquiro (www.enquiro.com/research.asp). This marketing firm performs â€œsearch behavioral researchâ€. For them, itâ€™s more than a matter of search engine positioning. They strive to understand their clientâ€™s business and their target market.
Studies such as these, and other usability research, raised the bar. Now that you have a web site visitorâ€™s attention, how do you keep them on the web site until they accomplish what they came there for?
Scottie Claiborne, owner of Right Click Web Services, (www.rightclickwebs.com/) in her article, â€œSEO Without Usability - An Exercise in Futility" (http://www.rightclickwebs.com/seo/seo-usability.php) wrote, â€œSearch engine optimization is still in its infancy, and is a constantly changing discipline. As the search engines get better and better at rewarding the best/most complete sites, usability will become even more important. â€
What it boils down to is making a web site useful. Online marketers, who understand that the key to their clientâ€™s success is a customer centered web site, wonâ€™t even start the game until everyone on the team is playing towards that goal.
Usability Consultant, Kimberly Krause Berg, is the owner of http://www.UsabilityEffect.com , http://www.Cre8pc.com & http://www.Cre8asiteForums.com . Her background in organic search engine optimization, combined with web site usability consulting, offers unique insight into web site development.
Copyright 2005 Cre8pc.com