Understanding Search Usability – Part 2

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

  • In part 1 of Understanding Search Usability, I looked at search usability and the wide variety of search behaviors it addresses. SEO professionals tend to focus on query-related behavior, and web site usability professionals tend to focus on browsing behaviors. When both groups open their eyes and realize that all of these search behaviors are related, then real progress can be made toward creating and maintaining a search-friendly, user-friendly web site that converts visitors into buyers, subscribers, attendees, students, or [insert desired target user group].

    Search behavior realization is a big step, as it has multiple components applicable to SEO:

    • Identifying types of search behavior
    • Understanding how these search behaviors are all related
    • Designing a web site that addresses all or most of these search behaviors

    Search-engine friendly design has never been as simple as making a crawlable web site. Then again, some web designers/developers do not always create crawlable URLs, you know?

    The next big step, in my opinion, has to do with the degree of objectivity in understanding searcher behavior–not only the SEO professional’s objectivity, but also their clients’ objectivity.

    Understanding the searcher experience

    I remember my first usability test as the observer (not the facilitator). In web site usability, as an observer, your job is to listen, above and beyond all else. It is not to think, “Why are you doing it that way? This is what I would do.”

    The moment you allow the thought, “This is what I would do,” to enter your mind, objectivity is lost. The idea is to observe the different types of search behavior exhibited throughout testing and why test participants exhibited those behaviors. Were keywords used inappropriately, or not at all, and is that the source of confusion? Were navigation labels and formatting noticeable enough to clearly communicate “You are here” cues?

    “You are here” cues are very important in search usability. When searchers click on a link from Google, Yahoo, Live, or Ask, they are not likely to land on a site’s home page. Searchers are going to land on a page in the middle of the site. Searchers immediately form a mental model of a web site, and that mental model should generate user confidence. The commercial web search engines use term highlighting in their cache views to help communicate user confidence.

    User confidence is another item that can be measured through usability testing. Think about it: if searchers do not feel confident that a web site is delivering desired information and is credible, then they are less likely to make a purchase, enroll in a class, sign up for a newsletter, and so forth.

    Observing actual searcher behavior—objectively—is crucial for understanding search usability. SEO professionals can quote Jakob Nielsen and Jared Spool all they want to support their methodologies. However, until SEO professionals can objectively observe and/or facilitate a series of tests, analyze the behaviors and interfaces, and scientifically tabulate the results, I do not believe that they are search usability experts.

    Three things to remember during search usability evaluations

    SEO professionals certainly understand how search engines interact with various types of web sites and the technologies implemented on these sites. Usability professionals understand standard usability and design/interface guidelines, which is great. Nevertheless, web pages need to be tested on specific profiles, personae, and/or roles. (These three items vary among usability professionals.) The average web user can have so many different characteristics and goals. Some guidelines fly out the window when dealing with a specific profile or role.

    Objectivity is crucial to understanding search usability. Here are three things I always remember when dealing with clients who want a search usability analysis:

    (1) You are NOT the user.

    Clients are not selling their products and services to themselves. Google is not purchasing thousands or millions of dollars in products or signing up for a newsletter. The IT department (or whoever is in charge of building and maintaining a site) usually designs and programs web sites to suit their needs, not the user needs.

    One red flag? “You’re just mad because we learned how to automate a process,” is a comment I often hear from web developers who have not tested web pages. It is classical avoidance behavior – change the subject instead of focusing on the issue at hand: the end users.

    Remember, usability is about balancing user goals and business goals. It is not only about business goals. It is not only about searcher goals. It is a balance. You should observe user behavior objectively. That previous sentence has two parts:

    • Observe user behavior
    • Objectively

    Many SEO professionals do not actually observe user behavior.

    I am never going to forget some of my first observations of searcher behavior. I watched people click Google ads who had no idea that they were ads. When I provided the task of searching for specific web sites, I watched people type in a URL (specifically, a domain name) in the Yahoo search box instead of the address bar on a browser. I have watched many, many people begin at Yahoo and not Google, and some people search for Google on Yahoo. SEO professionals? Try watching this behavior with a straight and non-judgmental face, and try not to comment without coming off as rude or condescending. It is not as easy as it might seem.

    (2) Even if a user fits a profile, persona, or role, a user is not objective or accurate about evaluating his own behavior.

    I have watched many, many test participants say they are going to click on one link and then click on a different link. I have listened to many people say that they did not see text or a link, and then eyetracking results show the exact opposite.

    When I am a usability test participant, I love seeing my own results if the facilitators will allow it (they sometimes do). I always burst out in laughter because I can see how “not objective” I am about my own search behavior.

    Therefore, whenever I hear, “Well, this is what I would do,” I know that the client or SEO professional is not being truly objective. I think it is really difficult to fully grasp the concept, “I am NOT the user.”

    (3) Users are not always right.

    Once people get past the realization that they are not the targeted user, and that they are not very effective at self evaluation, then comes another important realization. Users are not always right.

    I know many SEO professionals and their clients already believe that users are not always right. However, there is a difference between, “People have to think my way because my way is better and I make more money,” and “There are reasons that users think and act this way.” The latter attitude is more objective.

    Here are some examples where users were not right. A tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable. A frog is an amphibian, not a reptile. When I visited China last year, at breakfast I listened to Americans wonder why the tomatoes were presented with other fruits. I remembered this natural categorization when I worked on an online grocery site later that year.

    I know to accommodate the text in places to re-educate site visitors who believe that a tomato is a vegetable and a frog is a reptile. But I would not change the categorization. Maybe I can cross-reference tomatoes and frogs within the categorization. For example:

    • See Fruits > Tomatoes
    • See Amphibians > Frogs

    Keyword implementation within an information architecture is crucial for search engine visibility. A resourceful SEO professional should understand when users are genuinely wrong and try to diplomatically and gracefully guide them in the right direction.


    Search usability is a complex subject. There are many types of search behaviors, and plenty of elements on a web page that need to be formatted in such a way to accommodate these behaviors. At the forefront of understanding search usability is to observe and listen to users objectively. Focus groups, web analytics, and A/B and multivariate testing are all ways in which search engine marketers try to understand their target audience. Don’t rule out usability testing.

    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).