Understanding Search Usability

Shari Thurow on
  • Categories: All Things SEO Column, Channel: SEO, SEO: General, Stats: Search Behavior

  • The term “search usability” is widely misunderstood throughout a variety of industries: Web design/development, search engine marketing (SEM), online advertising, information sciences, human-computer interface (HCI), and usability industries. Even the term “usability” is misunderstood by search professionals.

    Every time I hear an SEO professional claim that his or her firm implements web site usability best practices, I wait to hear about the formative and summative usability tests performed. And I wait… and I wait… and I wait… and I wait. Then I go about my daily business because I will wait forever.

    In my opinion, the vast majority of SEO professionals do not give a hoot about user-centered design (UCD), or, more accurately, usage-centered design. Nevertheless, they use these terms during a sales pitch or a conference presentation because it sounds pretty impressive, doesn’t it?

    In today’s article, I hope to dispel some of the common misconceptions about search usability, and to show how important search usability is to the SEM industry.

    Usability, focus groups and web analytics

    One of the most ignorant (and defiant) statements I ever heard from a client about web site usability was, “Our site is user friendly! Millions of people use it every day.” After I picked up my jaw from the floor, I had to patiently explain some differences among web site usability, focus groups, and web analytics.

    Web site usability is task oriented, meaning that usability testing measures the efficiency of how users (who fit a specific persona or profile) complete a desired task. Testing is done one person at a time, not as a group, and each participant’s behavior and actions are carefully observed and recorded. I have personally witnessed, countless times, many participants say how beautiful they think a web site is and subsequently never complete the desired task. I have observed many participants say they will take one action and then do something else. You can have the most beautiful, award-winning web site with top search engine positions…and little or no conversions because the site just is not user friendly.

    Focus groups measure group opinions about an interface. A focus group’s measurements are not task oriented. The negative aspect of focus groups is a herd mentality. Granted, if I do not like an interface and genuinely would not use it, no amount of peer pressure is going to get me to change my opinion. But that is just me. Peer pressure often yields poor interfaces.

    Web analytics certainly provides useful data, but actual users are not observed interacting with a web site. That one-on-one interaction is crucial to determining why desired tasks are not being taken on a web site. And therein lies the key to understanding SEO and web site usability: the human factors. Why do people do what they do before and after they arrive on your web site? By objectively observing target audience members and carefully analyzing their search behavior, web site owners can improve their web sites. Jill Whalen said it so nicely in a recent SearchEngineLand column:

    “Everything that we teach people to do in SEO has a purpose, and that purpose is not to make the search engines think our site is better than it is. The purpose is to actually make the site better than it is.”

    Berrypicking and search usability

    In order to understand search usability, I believe one must fully comprehend the concept of berrypicking. Back in 1989, UCLA professor Marcia Bates wrote a landmark search behavior paper entitled The Design of Browsing and Berrypicking Techniques for the Online Search Interface.

    Even though Google and Yahoo were not yet in existence when she wrote and published her article, Bates’ research is applicable to the commercial web search engines. Many people want to believe that searching is a linear behavior, and it is not. Searching comprises a wide variety of behaviors including, but not limited, to:

    • Querying
    • Refining
    • Expanding
    • Browsing/surfing
    • Pogo-sticking
    • Foraging
    • Scanning
    • Reading

    The term search usability applies to all search behavior, not only one search behavior, and that is why Bates’ research and findings are so monumental. She recognized long ago that berrypicking behavior is the true behavior of information searchers, and that this knowledge can guide us to design more effective interfaces (in our case, web pages).

    SEO vs. usability professionals

    The problem with many SEO professionals is that they only focus on the following search behaviors:

    • Querying
    • Refining
    • Expanding

    Usability professionals, on the other hand, tend to focus on the following search behaviors:

    I understand why usability and HCI professionals tend to ignore querying behavior when they study search behavior. During interface testing, participants tend not to exhibit querying behavior overall. They scan, browse, read, and pogostick. Therefore, in the web site usability industry, the term “search usability” has come to mean only the usability of querying interfaces (e.g. the search box, search results pages, defensive design of search interfaces, etc.)

    Enter the commercial web search engines. Now, querying behavior has emerged as a very popular and profitable industry. In an effort to distinguish themselves from black-hat SEO practitioners, many usability professionals prefer to differentiate search-friendly design and search engine-friendly design. Search-friendly design is user-centered or usage-centered design. The focus is on end users. Search engine-friendly design, on the other hand, is a design for information retrieval systems only. Want your web site to show up in the top 10 results in Google? Then design a web site only for Google. Want your web site to show up in the top 10 results in Yahoo? Then design a web site for Yahoo. While you’re at it, design a site for Microsoft Live and one for Cloak all of these sites and make sure you redirect them to the “real” site when you believe you have detected an actual human user. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    I empathize with usability and HCI professionals. Taking end users out of the design/development process seems completely illogical. Google isn’t going to spend thousands or millions of dollars on a web site’s products and services. End users will. Besides, the search engines want what searchers want, and searchers want to be delivered to high-quality web sites that meet user expectations.

    Nevertheless, usability and HCI professionals need to face reality: people search. People use the commercial web search engines for research, shopping, browsing, and entertainment. Just as SEO professionals should not ignore other types of search behavior, usability professionals should not ignore querying behavior.


    The term “search usability” addresses all search behaviors on a single web site, not only querying behavior, and not only browsing behavior. A user-friendly, search-friendly web site accommodates berrypicking behavior and delivers searchers to the information they desire as quickly and easily as possible.

    Shari Thurow is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the book Search Engine Visibility. The 100% Organic column appears Thursdays at Search Engine Land.

    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).