Findability, SEO, And The Searcher Experience

All too often, we hear web developers, search engine optimization (SEO) professionals, usability practitioners, and even search engine reps claim, “It’s good for the user experience.” And we blindly accept that explanation.

Why did you put keywords in site navigation? It’s good for the user experience. Why did Google add Google Instant? It’s good for the user experience. Why did Bing create the seemingly endless scrolling effect for image search? It’s good for the user experience.

Well, fellow search professionals, I don’t know about you, but I am weary of this statement. The reason? I do not hear anyone clearly defining what the user experience is, especially when referring the searcher experience.

Fortunately, one of my esteemed colleagues, information architect Peter Morville, has defined and explained what he believes to be the searcher experience in his book Search Patterns (reference below), which is based on his user experience honeycomb. I have used his definition and explanation of the searcher experience for many years, and I have found it to be valid and credible for every SEO, website usability, and search-engine friendly design project I work on.

Don’t Forget About Searchers

Before I get into Morville’s explanation, I feel I must address part of the searcher experience that some SEO professionals seem to forget: users/searchers.

I understand that keyword research is a necessary part of the optimization process because it is crucial to use the searchers’ language and match their mental models. I understand that there is a very technical element to SEO because all website owners should provide easy access to content for both search engines and users.

Search engine optimization, in my opinion, is not optimizing a website for search engines only. Search engine optimization is optimizing a website for people who use search engines. The human element of SEO is just as important as the technical part of SEO.

That being said, the searcher experience is not:

  • I make money; therefore, it’s good for the searcher experience.
  • I like it; therefore, it’s good for the searcher experience.
  • My boss liked it; therefore, it’s good for the searcher experience.
  • The focus group thought it was cool; therefore, it’s good for the searcher experience.

As a search usability professional, I conduct usability tests all of the time. Believe me, when test participants evaluate the effectiveness of a website and communicate their experience with the interface, no one makes any of the above statements…ever.

Elements Of The Searcher Experience

So what exactly constitutes the searcher experience? According to Morville, the searcher experience currently consists of the following elements.

Reprinted with permission from Peter Morville

(To download the full image and explanation of Morville’s User Experience Honeycomb: Searcher’s Edition, please go to Flickr.)

  • Useful. As search practitioners, are we helping searchers achieve their goals? When it comes to web search, do our websites accommodate navigational, transactional, and informational queries as well as other types of web searches?
  • Usable. Is your website easy to use with maximum efficiency? Does your site implement defensive design? Is your site memorable and learn-able? I have always felt it is pointless for a web page to rank and be difficult to use.
  • Desirable. Desirability encompasses emotional design as well as user satisfaction.
  • Findable. Can web searchers find your website? If searchers perform a combination navigational/informational query, do they arrive on the most appropriate page? Since search engines are far from perfect, can users easily locate desired content after they arrive on your site when a search engine or other link delivers them to the wrong page?
  • Accessible. Is content accessible to blind and visually impaired users? Is content available to search engine bots?
  • Credible. Is the site reliable, trustworthy, and dependable? Is aboutness and visual affordance (clickability) clearly communicated? The Web Credibility Project is a really great place to understand what users/searchers determine to be credible.
  • Valuable. Does the searcher experience align with strategy? Does the website improve searcher satisfaction and contribute to your organization’s bottom line?

This current searcher experience honeycomb is evolving, and I am sure more elements will be added and modified over time. A quick scan of this list shows that usability is part of the user experience. It always has been. Findability is part of the user experience. It always has been.

As Morville said in his book Ambient Findability, “Findability precedes usability. In the alphabet and on the Web. You can’t use what you can’t find.”

SEO Is Part Of Findability

For many years, we search professionals dealt with negative comments about our profession. We are considered snake-oil salesmen. Some people claim that SEO is not rocket science. And my favorite? SEO is dead.

In Ambient Findability, Morville states:

find·a·bil·i·ty n

  1. The quality of being locatable or navigable.
  2. The degree to which a particular object is easy to discover or locate.
  3. The degree to which a system or environment supports navigation and retrieval.

SEO is not dead. It is such a critical part of the user experience. Search optimization is a key component website findability. Of course, search engine spam is an exploitation of findability, but high quality SEO is not.

What do you think, fellow search marketers? How many times do you hear lip service about the searcher experience? Does this give you a new perspective on the subject? Next time you hear SEO non-believers unfairly criticize and characterize our industry, ask the critic to define and explain the searcher experience. You will probably find that we are more knowledgeable about searchers than they are.


  • Morville, P. (2005). Ambient Findability. Sebastpol, CA: O’Reilly Media.
  • Morville, P. and Callender, J. (2010). Search Patterns. Sebastpol, CA: O’Reilly Media.
  • Search Patterns Library

About The Author

Shari Thurow
Shari Thurow is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the books Search Engine Visibility and When Search Meets Web Usability. Shari currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) and the ASLIB Journal of Information Management. She also served on the board of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA).