A lot of the focus in the search marketing world—both paid and organic—is on the technical and quantitative side. And that’s understandable, given the technical background of many of the practitioners and the perception that those elements are relatively easy to control. But many search marketers do themselves and their clients a disservice by not taking a more balanced view, arming themselves with the tools that a solid understanding of the search user experience (SUE) can provide.
With all the talk about how to achieve high rankings, the right growth curve to target for inbound link counts, PageRank shaping (which always makes me think of Suzanne Sommers, like she’ll be pimping the PageRank Shaper as the next Thigh Master), eking out higher Quality Score, and the like, it’s easy to lose sight of the role that actual users play in determining the success of our search campaigns. But user experience considerations often play as large a role as any of the other topics that search marketers regularly discuss. The trick is figuring out where to focus your attention.
To provide a shortcut, here are two quick tips on SUE issues that don’t get a lot of attention yet have a big impact on results. The first tip focuses on how to increase organic traffic by achieving a higher CTR on your organic search listings. The second discusses how to reduce the bounce rate on your site by ensuring a good first impression.
Tip 1 – URLs do matter for SEO
We all know good titles and descriptions are critical for a well optimized site. A lot has been written about the art of crafting these items and how to best balance relevance with user experience concerns. I don’t want to rehash those here. But there’s another element to search listings that doesn’t get much attention from the SEO community: the URL itself.
Yes, there have been debates about the importance of including keywords in your URLs. But those debates have usually centered around whether having keyword-rich URLs helps you to rank better. I watched this debate with some interest for a while trying to understand the practical SEO impact of URLs until I ran across some eye-tracking research that caused me to see the issue differently—and gave me the answer I was seeking.
The research was conducted by Enquiro for MarketingSherpa and published in Sherpa’s 2008 Search Marketing Benchmark Guide (the 2009 guide is out now – and is highly recommended). The research was attempting to see what impact, if any, that short vs. long URLs have on search behavior. Here’s an excerpt:
“What we discovered was that long URLs actually work as a deterrent and stop viewers from doing what they’re supposed to do (click!). Instead, viewers spend time trying to decipher what’s in the URL itself. Those viewing the listing with the long URL actually ended up clicking on the listing immediately after it 2.5 times more than those viewing the listing with the short URL.
Long URL length contributed to more clicks – on the next listing down the page. Those viewing the listing with the long URL clicked on the listing immediately following it 2.5 times more than those viewing the listing with the short URL – the long URL actually repelled a click as it was interpreted as being less relevant. The long URL may act as a visual wall, directing attention to the next listing.”
This rang true for me the moment I read it, mainly because it makes perfect sense. Users have so little information on which to make a decision about which listing to click that they naturally use every bit of information available to aid in their task. Many of us in the online marketing space might think of URLs as strictly utilitarian (who coined the phrase “Universal Resource Locator”, anyhow…?). But to a searcher the URL is just one of a few elements available to help determine relevance. Given how fast people scan search results for the scent of information and the abundance of “easier” results available, it makes sense that searchers essentially skip over any element that causes even momentary hesitation. More accurately, long ugly URLs create a cognitive burden for the searcher that they often resolve by skipping the burdensome listing altogether.
So by shifting from using long ugly URLs like this:
to short URLs like this:
…you could see as much as 2.5x more organic search traffic, with no change in your rankings. That’s some serious low-hanging fruit.
Surprisingly, this didn’t get a lot of play at the time, and I haven’t seen much talk about it since. But to me this was, and is, groundbreaking. I remember reading it the first time and thinking this should end the argument and make it plain as day that we should always recommend publishing short keyword-rich URLs—not for rankings, but because they garner higher consideration and clickthrough rates. So that’s what we’ve done ever since. We don’t realistically expect to see traffic increase 250% from making this change. That always struck me as a bit high. Our experience has been more in the 10-50% range. But that isn’t the point. Even if traffic only increases 10-20%, that’s plenty enough for most clients to justify the effort required to make the change.
Tip 2 – Your site design reflects your credibility
This tip is probably less controversial than the first, but no less significant in terms of potential impact. On the surface it makes sense that users would make judgments about your organization’s credibility based on their experience on your web site—starting with your landing pages. No surprise there. What might be surprising is how quickly people start to form those judgments when they see your site for the first time. And if your organization is like most, those new visitors are probably the audience you care most about, because return visitors are generally going to be more familiar and forgiving than first-timers. So how quickly do people start to react when presented with a new web site?
1/20 of a second
That’s right. A summary from a study done by researchers at Carleton University in Ontario, Canada concluded:
“This research shows that reliable decisions about your site can be made in as little as 1/20th of a second. This emotional judgment can color subsequent judgments made after further reflection. Even though your site may have superior products, services, or usability, an initial negative impression from a poor or slow design can steer customers towards your competition. You only get one chance to create a good first impression, make it count.”
Why does this matter to Web marketers? Because the research indicated that the initial split-second judgments people made about the web sites they saw impacted their likelihood of ever transacting with that organization. Once aware of this phenomenon, it seems irresponsible not to try to engineer around it. But telling a client or internal designer that their site is the visual equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard is fraught with risk. And it’s a highly subjective judgment. Fortunately, the Canadian researchers offered some guidelines:
“A clean, professional, and fast-loading site can ensure that your first impression will be a good one.”
OK, we can ensure a site loads quickly, but how to ensure a site is “clean and professional?” That’s definitely an art. I like to use this analogy to help explain it: Pretend someone takes you to a mall and then blindfolds you before walking you around the mall to ensure you lose your bearings. If they whip off the blindfold for just a split second, chances are you’d be able to tell if you were in Nordstrom or K-Mart. It sounds silly on the surface, but your initial gut reaction would likely be right a high percentage of the time.
Note that the research only addressed users’ first impressions of a site and not the subsequent usability, load times, or other factors related to user experience. All those factors are extremely important in the overall success of a site. An e-commerce site is obviously not going to be successful if the shopping cart doesn’t work. But the research makes clear the importance of ensuring a good first impression—or what we like to call the initial “hit.” We’re assuming that a site that creates a positive first impression will have a lower bounce rate (all other things being constant) than a site that generates a poor first impression. Our experience has been that bounce rates decline as a site’s design becomes cleaner, simpler and generally more professional, so this doesn’t seem like an unreasonable assumption.
So how do you test a site for the first impression it creates? First you have to accept that there are limits to the kind of reliable feedback mechanisms available to us non-university types. You and I can’t realistically hope to measure someone’s emotionally subconscious 50 millisecond reaction with any degree of accuracy. There are too many variables involved and we don’t have the measuring tools. But you can pretty easily test users’ initial reactions to a new site. In fact, a new online tool called Five Second Test does just that. It basically allows you to upload an image of the page you want to test and then flashes it up on a willing tester’s screen for five seconds, after which the user records what they remember about the site.
My colleague Sandra Niehaus has written a more complete review of the tool. I encourage you to check it out for yourself. It’s easy to use and, best of all, free. If you use it, please be sure to participate in one or more tests to help the other people out there trying to get feedback on their sites.
That tool will help you understand the issues in play. But to apply that intelligence, you’ll need to develop one or more new designs incorporating your learnings and A/B test those designs against your current landing pages. It can be a fair amount of work to do all of this. I can’t overstate the importance of working with a designer who understands usability and conversion marketing well. That can make all the difference in finding a design that feels right to your audience so that they hang around to find out more about you. Which is, of course, the goal of all of this.
So ask yourself honestly: Does your site feel like a clean well-lighted place or the online equivalent of a dark back alley? If the latter, you may be paying a higher price than you think.
So there you have it. One tip for getting more organic traffic and one for reducing your landing page bounce rates. They may not be as sexy as PageRank shaping, but neither of them are likely to get you in trouble with Matt Cutts.
Lance Loveday is the CEO of Closed Loop Marketing, a search marketing agency specializing in conversion optimization. He also co-authored the best-selling book, Web Design for ROI. The Just Behave column appears Fridays at Search Engine Land.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.