Usability & Internet Search Marketing: A More Unified Approach

For years there were two camps – website usability and search engine optimization. Rarely did they acknowledge each other, let alone work as a team. Each side argued they knew best how to make web pages findable in search engines.

They’re both right.

The website usability house is focused on human behavior. They follow along as people, or “users” as they’re referred to, use websites. User experience and user interface design offers challenges because our needs constantly change as we adapt to living and using the Internet to get information.

Search engines want user interaction information and data so they can continue to deliver what people want and how they want it presented.

Search engine optimization, on the other hand, is less focused on what users want and more on influencing user decisions. The early attempts were gentle nudges with source code that spoke to search engines quietly in the background, describing the topic of a site and directing bots to specific pages.

As search engine technology advanced and grew more complicated, so did SEO skills. It’s better known today as Search Engine Marketing. The goal is to direct users to specific websites, via advertisements, sponsored links, PPC ads to specific landing pages, optimized content and even choices of images and video.

Both camps are deeply involved in the art of people finding something via the Internet. Both are fascinated by you.

Search & Intent

Search marketing and user experience
Where and how we search is important for usability and search engine marketing.

Search engine marketers and usability engineers want to understand why we go to websites and what we do after we arrive at a search results page. They ask questions like:

  • Are we satisfied with where we landed?
  • Did the engine provide accurate results listings?
  • Was our click choice a positive one?
  • Did we stay on the site or leave?
  • If we left, what search result better matched what we wanted to find?
  • Was it the search results or did we have a bad experience with the web page we landed on?

Both search engines and human factors related fields study our intent.

Author Matt Bailey points to the depth of the importance of intent in his new book, Internet Marketing: An Hour a Day.

“Search engines are integrating more multimedia and allowing deeper access to documents and media earlier in the search process. They are attempting to determine the intent of the searcher and deliver results accordingly.”

What is our intent? Why do we visit the Internet? Why do we use search sites such as Google and Youtube?

In a 2009 ComScore study (comScore, 2009), they found that “Nearly one out of every ten minutes a person spends online around the world is spent on a Google site.” This includes the search engine itself, Youtube, which they own, Google books, email, Google reader and more.

Clearly, marketers want to be sure their clients’ websites perform well in Google’s web properties. Not doing so can wreck the success of a business.

Search Behavior = People Who Search

Shortly after search engines and information sites appeared on the Internet, case studies zeroed in to understand why, who, where, when, where and how humans use them. Hot on the trail, too, were analysts interested in learning about site traffic, popularity, rank and how to make money from it.

Many of you were guinea pigs during the 1990’s when web page backgrounds were gray with black text, and animation, 3D images, scrolling text boxes, rotating banners and blinking images were all part of a typical user interface.

As fun as all those things were to create (I loved animating images), web designers had to buckle to user preferences.

Search engines learned what we really come to the Internet for. Perhaps search engine sites are not suitable for certain subject types when it comes to information searches. In order to improve search engine design and SEO marketing efforts, we try to understand user intent and goals for searching.

It’s been well established at this point that search engines are used by us to find information. What kinds of information are most popular?

A recent study from Australia on who uses search engines found that half of search engine queries were looking for a particular website, while the other 50% were split between ecommerce and popular culture searches.

The study also pointed to what is referred to as “leisure searches”. The findings present the idea of search sites not only for information gathering or shortcuts to web sites, but they’re also sources for leisure, with one in six of all searches estimated as being leisure searches.

The Australian study offered some surprising details for anyone wondering what we’re searching for, by subject. Adult site searches fell into the middle, with ecommerce being second, edged under a tad by popular culture topics. Health, weather, contemporary affairs and government are the least popular searches.

The study stood out from others because it included and factored in the lifestyle of their participants. This is different than user testing labs or Eye tracking tests. To their surprise, lifestyle choices had no measurable impact on the type of search queries. In fact, new questions were raised on user –searcher behavior.

For example, do Internet users tend to go to particular trusted web sites for information on healthcare, computing and contemporary affairs, rather than use search engines? Does the distribution of the most ranked subjects searched for represent user interests or the suitability of search engines for looking up certain types of topics?

Another study (Broder, 2002) narrows search engine user behavior as informational, navigational, transactional and leisure. Half the searches in the study were navigational and one-third, transactional. Half of all searchers know where they want to go.

What Does This Mean To Search Marketers?

The most obvious is that it’s time to accept usability studies into marketing strategy. And, user experience professionals can no longer devalue the role of search marketers. Both camps provide essential skills and expertise needed for web site projects.

A lot of what’s happening on the Internet is relationship building. The global community wants this so badly they invented social networking sites and social marketing to drive interest and generate revenue from these new site sources.

Emotional web design is no accident. We’re emotional beings. Empathy makes us connect with others.

“In life and business, focus on creating win-win situations. Look beyond the immediate sale in order to connect with customers as people.” – Steve Harper, The Ripple Effect.

Despite our developing mental models and creating user personas, we remain on the edge of understanding who uses our stuff. Wouldn’t it be grand if stakeholders got out of their offices and actually interacted with the people who use their websites?

I’ve often wished I could video people who multi-task at home, with one hand on a laundry basket, an ear to the cell phone and a hand reaching for the laptop nearby. What does that busy person search for and how? Can we make their experience less stressful?

Division between marketing and user experience will dissolve as both approaches discover they need each others’ data to do a better job for their clients.

There’s no question that a passion for usability and search engine marketing leads to their fascinating cousins, like information architecture, findability, captology, analytics and neurology. There’s also no question that money can be made by optimizing for and advertising in search engines.

Studying user behavior is a win-win for search engine technology, search marketing and website usability and human factors.

Cited Resources:

Broder 2002; A Taxonomy of Web Search (PDF)

Waller, Vivienne 2010; Not Just Information: Who Searches for What on the Search Engine Google?

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Search & Usability


About The Author: is the SEO/Usability Consultant for Cre8pc. Her work combines website and software application usability testing with a working knowledge of search engine optimization.

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  • Sonja Monika Quirmbach

    Yes, it is time!

    So many more type of search queries are existing in web search, f. e. with a social or local component.

    Users behaviour is so much influenced from the basic question what is in his mind. Further search behaviour is so much influenced of users context and situation. It exist more than one usecase for search. Search is often iterative and explorative. User likes to get a special information but do not know the source where he could get this information and do not use the exakt phrase for the search because he did not know the exakt definition…

    What I learned in my user research studies: Search suggestions are a very good help for user to shape the seach. User need more orientation and navigation through the results. Rich snippets, structured results (and ads) and search related funktions are very helpfull for user in web searches. But this addintional informations needs a good design! Sometimes in web search a ligth grey is used for this .. it is not visible enough and looks not clickable. Using a dark color is better.

  • Alan Bleiweiss


    You fill a void in my heart a little more with every article you write :-) I honestly don’t know of any other professional who gets it as clearly as you do, and can then communicate it so well.

  • arivas

    Hi Kim, great article!

    You said “I’ve often wished I could video people who multi-task at home, with one hand on a laundry basket, an ear to the cell phone and a hand reaching for the laptop nearby. What does that busy person search for and how? Can we make their experience less stressful?”

    and “Wouldn’t it be grand if stakeholders got out of their offices and actually interacted with the people who use their websites?”

    Well, know you can watch videos of people from their home interacting with websites or applications, or conducting searches, or reacting to online adverts or content, while they multitask in their pyjamas.

    And the stakeholders dont have to leave their offices to do this…:)

    At Userlytics you can define a url, or prototype, or a search process or online advert or content, you can define the demographics of the types of Personas you would like to observe, and whats tasks you would like them to conduct, and within days or even hours receive synchronized videos of everything the participants did on their screen, and a web cam recording of them doing it while voicing their thoughts out loud.

    Its very easy, very fast, and very affordable. We believe it will change the paradigm of user experience and internet search marketing, as well as any and all types of user research, and make iterative user centered design and user centered search marketing, a reality.

    Essentially, it allows us to become a fly on the wall of our users and customers homes and offices, and bridges the disconnect between the intention of most companies to be close to the customer, and the reality that most employees of most companies have never seen their customers or users use their products, services or websites. And even less have done so when the customers were at their homes or offices.

    Full disclosure: I am the CEO of Userlytics

  • Shari Thurow

    Hi Kim-

    I found it very interesting that 1/2 of the queries seemed to have navigational intent as well. I think navigational queries are far more common than people realize.

  • Kim Krause Berg

    Thanks everyone! I found it interesting that I could find no interest in this piece by the UX industry but SEO’s did respond. Sigh…


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