Not long ago I asked my twenty year old daughter where she goes to get information. Without hesitation she replied, “Google.” I thought this made sense. Her generation grew up with Google. They were taught to use it in school for research and to get images for projects. For comparison, I asked my 73 year old mother the same question and she adamantly replied, “I couldn’t live without Google!”
In earlier times, we read books and sent handwritten letters carried off and away by fast ponies. Before that, scribes recorded information into scrolls. Before language, there were grunts, body language and even telepathy. Gone are the days when humankind built enormous temples with columns and carved statues covered with symbols. Murals in pyramids and caves told stories. Most cultures retold stories, created mythology, wrote poetry and parables, and taught songs to generation after generation.
Discoveries led to technology that led to radio, TV and mass printing. First we had sound. Families sat together and listened to stories, comedy skits, news and music on one radio. I grew up watching black and white TV shows like Bewitched and Get Smart, and watched the Apollo space missions in two colors on a TV with “rabbit ears”. Today, there are remote controls and picture-in-picture on gigantic color high definition TV sets; some as large as a living room bay window. Eventually we invented computers and someone named Bill Gates decreed that every family in the world should have one in their home.
I remember when my mom would instant message me while I was working. I had to politely ask her to stop because I couldn’t just interrupt myself whenever she or anyone wanted. So she switched to email. My parents live in the same house, but both have their own PC and separate email accounts. They haven’t called me on a phone in years. All of my kids and their friends taught us to “Never call us on our cell phone. Just use text.” Apparently despite the ability to call someone wherever they are, it’s totally uncool to do so.
What we are witnessing is user behavior, and how and why our habits change.
One of the reasons search marketing professionals reject some older practices is because search and search behavior evolved as the technology changed. Computer usage behavior changes quickly in certain groups. Young people, taught to use computers and calculators in school, must also deal with the products that specifically target them, such as music players and video cameras. They may be more likely to search by brand to be the “cool kid” vs another group of users who use other purchase criteria such as price or durability.
It’s important, when writing content and optimizing pages, to understand the language your mental model, user persona and target market communicate with. In industries where engineers or purchase agents must find specific parts to build with or mass produce, designers and internet marketers will not be successful in search engines or with repeat traffic unless they know how to “talk” and present web pages that meet those customers’ specific needs and browsing habits.
One of the reasons more and more companies are seeking web site usability input is that they’ve figured out they’re not competitive in the long run without it. Even investing in PPC and targeted ads eventually requires ongoing testing and tuning to keep up with changes in searcher behavior. Remember that the tools you are using have far more to tell you than simply which search engine ranks your pages the best.
The sheer volume of information that web development and web marketers need to know today is so vast that I’m willing to bet the majority don’t realize what they need to know beyond the basics. It doesn’t take much prompting to get a blank stare from web designers. All I have to say to them is, “Can people with disabilities use your web site?” A project manager may come back with, “We use alt tags in our images” and think they’ve appeased the gods with that.
Why should an internet marketer be asking the same question about accessibility? Because you are optimizing for people who use search engines. Who uses search engines to find information? People using software to help them use a web site. People with hand tremors struggling with a mouse. Those of us that wear glasses, contact lenses and reading glasses need web pages we can read. Anyone who has trouble with distractions will not wish to stay on the web site you promote if there are moving elements on the page that hinder reading or purchase decisions.
I’m sure you look for any study or paper you can find on search engine algorithms and patents. No true authentic search engine marketer can hope to do their job without trying to stay on the top of the bucking bronco called Google. But the data you’re relying on is only one part of the story. User behavior is where the pot of gold is hiding. There is far more information you can use than what eye tracking can offer you. Here are some examples of helpful research:
- The use of blogs by librarians and libraries to disseminate information
- Brand and its effect on user perception of search engine performance
- Motivation for using search engines: A two-factor model
Server logs and data tracking software tell part of the story of your web site’s performance after it is found in a search engine. But what if you could take the data and use it to understand who is really coming to your site, rather than who you may be trying to target? What if you could construct mental models and user profiles based on keyword patterns? What if the taxonomy used in your information architecture was based on keyword patterns gleaned from previous usage of your site?
Consider that back in our world of print, pony express and TV, information flowed outward in a one way direction. You couldn’t pick the words you heard or read first. With newspapers, your eyes move from sentence to the next sentence and headline to headline until you read to the end of the page and turn it for more reading top to bottom. There are no rotating pictures to distract you. There are no linked words in paragraphs taking you off on a new path and losing your original train of thought or activity.
User generated content like user rankings and votes provide serious data that can be used to gain insight into who users are, in addition to what they say they like. I found a 1997 study on search engine user behavior for information retrieval. There was a study done in 1986 on “end-user online searching behavior over eleven years”.
Web site usage is always a choice
If you don’t like a song on your iPod or a radio, you change it. On the web, if you don’t like black backgrounds because they’re painful on your eyes, you click elsewhere. What if there was a way to let your readers control a site layout—not only to change colors but to remove distracting images? Browser controls allow some of this but most often users pay a price by losing navigation or the text color has to be changed if the background color is changed. Too much work! A web site would have to be pretty special to keep someone on long enough to make the changes they need to use it. If you truly understood who is using your web site, wouldn’t you want to design it for them?
How groups of people use computers and look for information varies. This is why personalized search is sought after. While you have your server logs to help you understand user behavior on your site, a search engine has whole cultures and demographics broken down into mere pieces of us. Some researchers study web usage for women, while others study social networkers. How many keywords are used for search queries by one group? Do some groups search by brand more often than another group? Does your company attract more attention with your blog than your corporate site? What would you learn if you knew a crowd of blogs were focused on one topic? Might this be a signal? If you have a company site and a blog, which one comes up on your popular search terms? Can this data tell you anything about who uses your web site?
Web data mining provides information for both search engine marketers and those in user experience fields. There remains a disconnect between the two so it’s sometimes difficult to work in harmony. Search engine patents may drop clues about information retrieval in the future but can you be applying page changes with what you have access to now? With so many people of any age going to Google to ask their questions, your goal is to understand every person, provide the accurate response and get that content to rank well so they find it.
Monitor user choices. Track inbound and outbound traffic. Don’t ignore page abandonment. Always do split A/B page testing. Find and optimize for related keywords. Experiment with key phrases. Determine which has the most conversion power—your blog, your Facebook page, your company site or your product pages which may be optimized by brand name.
Internet marketers are like riders on horseback charging after a herd of cattle. Those cattle are free to go where they please until someone rounds them up and guides them where to go next. Those cattle aren’t going anywhere willingly unless they trust that you placed their best interests and needs first. End users are the same way.
Get to know them.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.