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The Value Of Testing Website Usability & Search Engine Performance
For one day during the holiday shopping period in December, customers could not use a well-known retail giant’s website. Heads rolled. Jobs were on the line. Searchers were puzzled.
How is it possible, you may wonder, that a website representing a popular brand could experience a day of lost sales during the busiest shopping time of the year? What did they lose, in addition to customer trust and revenue loss? Consider what they did to become that famous brand.
Most likely, they have a marketing company that handles everything from print advertising, PPC, sponsorships, social media marketing and organic on-page search engine optimization. They’re also more than likely to have user interface engineers hired to design attractive websites and programmers assigned to scripting and coding interactive forms, applications and pages.
Were the individuals in each of these areas testing together? Do they communicate any strategy that may interfere with something another department is working on? Unfortunately, the answer is often no.
In cases of large corporate website development, entire departments are working on the exact same project and each feels they have the most stake, power and investment. You can bet that when changes are made to the design and performance of an order process, starting from a product page, that along the way to final production, something wasn’t tested for both search engine and user reactions.
Objective Approach To Testing
If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re already on board with the idea that Usability and SEO procedures do, in fact, blend together well. It wasn’t always accepted and there are some people who still insist the two practices can’t live together.
Frankly, unless you’ve mastered one, you can’t succeed at mixing the other into your personal practice unless you’ve spent time in the other camp. Nothing bangs you over the head with an “Ah Ha!” moment better than when you realize that to truly make your client or employer’s Web based project successful, you must understand how search engines index and rank, and how people search and make choices from search engines and webpages.
As simple as this might sound, finding people with both usability and search engine strategy and testing skills is quite difficult. In addition, there is an understandable lack of understanding what usability and search marketers do because there are related, and just as important, skills, tactics, practices and procedures each profession can do to enhance value.
For example, despite complaints that information architecture is dying and SEO is already dead, the truth is that long-term success online (and now, with mobile devices), information architecture is critically vital and, in my humble opinion, the ancient methods of organic SEO is as necessary as eating vegetables for good health.
Why wouldn’t giant company departments with managers and staffs with trained people consider some sort of unified testing approach during the development phase? One answer is time. Those of you who work in intense development environments understand managers that are breathing down your neck and superiors forcing impossible deadlines.
It’s easy for mistakes to be made in these situations, and this was the case of the big brand that lost a day’s worth of sales. They didn’t factor in time to test the results of changes and when several departments are rolling out their own set of updates at the same time, something is bound to conflict.
If large companies with multiple websites face severe situations like this, what does it mean for the rest of us? The solution is the same for everyone.
Hire an outside, objective company to handle all testing or create an in-house QA testing department ready to handle all aspects of front and back-end design testing.
This includes search engine marketing, which brings in areas such as site architecture, domain structure, content implementation and works with the usability person on persuasive navigation, target market analysis, mental models and much more.
Tools & DIY Testing
Many website owners and companies with an online presence lack enough objective information to decide what type of testing their site needs. Many of you are aware of methods you can do on your own or by reading a how-to article, such as split testing, click tracking and making sense of Google Analytics and your server logs.
There are heat maps, gaze maps, feedback forms, surveys, user generated product feedback and color contrast software. Add to this all the free SEO tools and free or low cost mobile device emulators, and you can spend hours gathering information on your website’s performance.
But will you understand what all that data is showing you? Do you have access to case studies that explain why certain types of people make the choices they do?
Eye tracking software is cool but unless you can get verbal feedback from the user about why they looked at something somewhere and then looked at that thing over there, you can only guess.
Would the results of eye tracking tasks be different if the test subject started from a search engine result rather than just being shown a page layout? What color choices and navigation styles work best for your target users?
Real website testing via audits and reviews can consist of a mish mash of the above tools, but if you don’t have an interpretation of the findings, what use is this to you? User testing is helpful but unless the test participants represent your target user demographic, the results aren’t solid. They can find broken links, but so can software. They can tell you if they understood the content, but so can software.
The bigger your website, the more you will need to invest in all out testing from every angle. It can mean performance testers who record expected user activity and each time a change is made to any code, the tests have to be run again or changed to adapt.
One of the first lessons a website designer or owner learns is that any change to the design or addition of scripts or content leads to changes in how a search engine may crawl the site or index a page. Something as simple as changing a word in text navigation can affect search results and also confuse regular users.
Search engines expect changes to webpages but people don’t. They simply want “the thing to work” and they want it to work just like it did the last time they were there. Every Twitter or Facebook user will bend your ear on how changes to the user interface upsets their daily, harmonious social activity. Each Beta roll out comes crawling out knowing that testing is being done live and they must face the repercussions if there are any. And, there will be.
What To Test
Despite the long term value of investing in creating an in-house testing environment, which pulls from every contributing profession to website development and brand marketing, most companies won’t consider it.
Even some QA companies themselves don’t include human factors, user experience design, persuasive architecture, information architecture, social media marketing and search engine optimization. They strictly focus on functionality and some basic usability standards. Rarer still would be any QA testing department or usability testing company that includes accessibility standards testing. This may still be a specialization singled out like information architecture and mobile device testing is.
In addition to a fear of investing in hiring website testing and not understanding why tests are needed, many site owners don’t know enough about why they even own a website. Obviously, most site owners want to generate revenue or be a leading source for information, but they don’t have a plan for how to do this online. They may have created a business plan but not a website requirements plan.
This is how you decide whom to hire for website testing, audits, reviews and analyzing marketing data. Whomever you hire should ask for the requirements for your website. Who is it designed for? What do you expect search engines and people to do with it? Who is your competition and why? What makes your company so special?
Website usability, user interface, SEO and search engine strategy testing can present you with reams of data to fill up spreadsheets and make pretty charts, but how helpful is any of it unless you know specifically what to test for?
Photo Credits: “Businessman Pressing Risk Button, stock image from http://www.freedigitalphotos.net, used under license, contributed by user “mack2happy”.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.