More SEO Myths About Website Usability

Shari Thurow on
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  • When you optimize your website for search engine visibility, who are you targeting? The statistically average web searcher? Someone who is new to web searching? Or a highly experienced web searcher? Which mental model is reflected in the site optimization: the technical mental model or the user mental model?

    Unfortunately, “usability” is often the excuse for building a technically savvy website with little or no concern for the searcher. Usability professionals can easily single out search professionals with little or no usability experience and expertise, but the average person might have a more difficult time. To assist you in finding a qualified search usability expert, here are some myths to watch out for.

    Myth #1: Design And Optimize For The Statistically Average Searcher/User

    As a search usability professional, one tool I use to get all stakeholders (marketing, design, development, copywriting, management, etc.) on the proverbial same page are personas.

    “A persona is a design tool that describes a typical user for the product you’re designing,” said Jeff Horvath, Ph.D, Vice President of User Experience Strategy at Human Factors International. “It may contain information about demographics, motivation, contexts of use, ‘day in the life of’ details, and anything else that may be relevant to the design context.”

    “When designing, there really is no such thing as an ‘average’ user, and every designer, programmer, and manager needs to remember that they are not the users,” Horvath continues. “The persona is a tool to help them remember who the user is, how they think, what they do, and what they need to be successful. Personas eliminate the guessing and help make informed and unbiased design decisions.”

    To reiterate, a persona is not:

    • A statistically average user
    • An edge case
    • Actual people
    • Market segments
    • A job description

    “SEOs are asked for keyword research to find all the various ways words were put together by people who eventually landed on the site, with no thought about who those people are,” said Kim Krause Berg, Usability/SEO/IA Consultant of The Usability Effect and esteemed Search Engine Land columnist. “Why did they choose those phrases? When in a browse/buy/research cycle did they search with them?”

    “The emphasis is on the prioritizing the words based on traffic volume but not the intent behind them,” Krause continues. “Not the environment. What about their emotional state? Or situations like being in a rush or trying to read on a mobile device? The irrelevance placed on the people behind keywords makes no sense to me. This type of information should be brought into the marketing plan as an asset. Otherwise, SEO is just target practice using an invisible target.”

    Moral of the story? Use personas. They are a great tool. Personas help keep the focus on the user/searcher mental model—not the mental model of your search engine optimizer, not the mental model of your developers, and not the mental model of management.

    Myth #2: I Am The User

    I say this at Search Marketing Expo conferences all of the time: Google is not going to spend thousands or millions of dollars on your products and services. Your target audience will. Management is not going to spend thousands or millions of dollars on your products and services. Your target audience will. Your SEO professional is not going to spend thousands and millions of dollars on your products and services… do you get where I am going with this?

    Whenever I embark on any search usability project, I always tell myself, “I am not the user. I am optimizing a website for people who do not think the same way I think. I am optimizing a website for people who do not act the same way I act.” Believe it or not, many people have great difficulty getting to this realization, especially developers or techies.

    True story that happened last month: I was training a company on SEO and website usability, and as an example of a quick usability test, I tried the 5-Second Usability Test on a group of students. The point of this usability test is to quickly measure how a content page performs with users. As an SEO professional, I want to ensure that the target audience can identify the “aboutness” and keywords on a page very quickly. The results were very eye opening. Not a single person from the technical team performed the test correctly. Every single person on the technical team mentioned how he or she would modify the page to make it more search-engine friendly.

    No one on the technical team was thinking like a user. In other words, the test quickly revealed who was focused on the user/searcher mental model, and who could not let go of his or her personal mental model.

    Myth #3: People Find/Use My Website All The Time; Therefore It’s User Friendly

    Whenever I hear a person make this sort of statement, I try to determine whether or not that person truly understands what usability is.

    Some ways I determine whether or not a person understands website usability is to:

    • Ask for a definition of “usability” to ensure we are on the same page
    • Get examples of items that were measured in usability testing
    • The names of two or three usability tests that were performed in the last 6 months

    For example, some items that are measured in usability testing include:

    • Effectiveness
    • Ease of learning (learnability)
    • Memorability
    • Error prevention
    • User satisfaction

    Types of usability tests include but are not limited to:

    • Expectancy tests
    • Card sort tests
    • Performance tests
    • Visual affordance tests
    • Free exploration tests

    I highly encourage search marketing professionals to learn more about website usability, because SEO and website usability are intricately connected. Don’t be afraid to take a class. Likewise, I highly encourage usability professionals to learn more about search engine optimization. Together, we can build more effective, findable websites.

    Articles about personas

    Persona training

    Articles about web searcher characteristics

    For those of you who are interested in learning more about web searcher characteristics, such as gender differences and the differences between newbie and expert web searchers, these articles are a great place to start.

    • Fidel, R., Davies, R.K., Douglass, M.H., Holder, J.K., Hopkins, C.J., Kushner, E.J., Miyagishima, B.K., & Toney, C.D. (1999). A visit to the information mall: Web searching behavior of high school students. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50(1), 24–37.
    • Holscher, C. Strube, G. (2000) Web Search Behavior of Internet Experts and Newbies. International Journal of Computer and Telecommunications Networking, 33(1–6), 337–346.
    • Lazonder, Ard W. et al. Differences Between Novice and Experiences Users in Searching Information on the World Wide Web. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 51(6), 576–581.
    • White, R. and Morris, D. (2007). Investigating the Querying and Browsing Behavior of Advanced Search Engine Users. In Proc. SIGIR 2007, 255-262.

    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).