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August 6, 2007

SEO with Usability: What The People Want

If you are in the business of optimizing web pages and promoting web sites in search engines, in all likelihood, you’ve never personally experienced the product or service you’re paid to market.

And yet, your client expects you to make them rich. At the very least, they want their company to rank well in search engine results. They expect you to find the exact keywords their customers are using to find their product or service, but you don’t have access to those customers, do you? You rely on tools and server logs to do your job.

You may be given data to analyze but seriously, if you had the choice, wouldn’t you rather experience the big 10 person party hot tub yourself rather than read dry data on who has purchased it?

Wouldn’t the feel of the warm water, the night sky bursting with stars and the teasing touch of skin nearby just nail the reason for wanting to buy one? Would you know how to target the different sizes of hot tubs and their uses? What if a Bed and Breakfast wants to buy one? Are their needs different than the family of five who want one in their backyard?

How do you advertise what you don’t know about?

SEO’s are demanded to do this. Blind folded. Web site developers are asked to design ways to order products they’ve never held in their hands. Usability consultants are asked to make sure everybody did their job properly, knowing full well in many cases, site designers were never given guidelines, requirements or anything other than a Wish List by the site’s owner.

Does the Search Engine Marketing industry need to know more about Usability and do User Experience designers need to understand that someone has to market their creation and make it findable and appealing enough to use or buy?

Experience and Marketing

There’s a hilarious scene in the movie, What Women Want, where Mel Gibson is competing with a top woman executive for the best marketing campaign for various women’s products. Everyone on the project has been asked to come up with slogans for the self-care products. Mel Gibson doesn’t like the new woman, played by Helen Hunt, who came on board to take over the job position he believed he was entitled to. He decides to outdo her.

So he takes the products home and while guzzling wine, begins to use them. He waxes his legs, paints his fingernails, nearly gets killed with a blow-dryer and my favorite part, puts on women’s pantyhose. The experience of the hell women go through to be attractive slowly dawns on him.

Add to this the fact that he can suddenly read the minds of women and you get a marketers dream. His character uncovers their raw emotions, their hidden thoughts, even fantasies and desires that he never knew women had.

While still not as intimately educated on the products as a woman would be, he was able to get enough of a glimpse so he could understand how best to sell not only the products, but the EXPERIENCE of using them.

He had direct access to user experiences and created the marketing campaign based on what he learned.

Marketing Without Blinders On

My son recently asked why horses that pull Amish buggies wear “blinders”. I told him this is because they can see on the side of their heads and they can spook easily, such as when cars come whizzing by on the road. It’s a common practice to blindfold horses when leading them away from fire or other emergency situations because not seeing danger calms them. Once, I needed to tie a shirt over a horse’s eyes just to get him to walk over a bridge. A horse will not go where it doesn’t feel safe.

This same theory applies to customers who make purchases online. Promotional descriptions nearly always focus on an aspect of the product to get the first click through. Once on a page, several things happen at once.

  1. The searcher’s expectation for what they think they’ll find must be met.
  2. More information must be presented to enable a decision or make choices.
  3. The next steps must be clear, such as learn more, change your mind but keep searching on that site, where to go next and where to get customer assistance.
  4. The entire experience must feel safe, secure, authentic and believable.

Therefore, it’s important to promote and follow up with a persuasive, logical presentation.

Funny thing is, many SEO’s feel this order sequence also means their part supersedes usability in importance. However, chances are the optimization elements were entered AFTER the design, rather than during. The usability and accessibility heuristics were likely there first, at least in some basic form like site guidelines. If they were not, and the site is truly not usable, then an SEO has an uphill battle they may not wish to climb.

Listening to Feedback and Using the Information

The foundation for your web site may not be strong enough to withstand variables in human behavior, cultural differences, advances in computer technology, new search engines and directories and competitors whose Internet marketing tactics out perform yours.

This is another reason why usability and accessibility design begin from the ground up. You want to meet standards. You want to be armed and ready with a fortified site. It’s also why preparation during the conceptual stages and testing during the build process are valuable to you.

For example, does your web site need a plug-in and if so, can someone who needs assistive technology use it or find a workaround? If your web site relies on customer experience to help sell products or services, how many human assisted search engines or directories have actual access to the product or service and can place the site or product page in the correct place so it will be found?

This is not the same as a directory editor looking at content and finding the correct category to place a site. It’s about searchers asking for help in making better searches by seeking the help of people who work for a search engine. New search engines that offer human help offer a new kind of personalized search experience. A representative, who has personally worked on rebuilding car engines, for example, knows best where to guide someone searching for specific parts vs. just getting pages back based on paid keyword analysis or keywords chosen based on category or popularity.

The user experience plays into marketing either by personal experience with a product or service or user studies. Their feedback may be applied to the overall site design and functionality. For Internet promotion, a blog post written with details on how a new customer felt about the new iPhone will come up in searches. The phone’s manufacturer may find certain keywords in that customer’s story that can be used to sell it better, and also be used in the product’s web site design itself in navigation or link labels, image alt attribute text, product descriptions and names of categories.

The customer teaches us how to market to them if we listen to what they have to say.

There’s a reason the “Long Tail” and Word of Mouth marketing helps us. The information offers clues into how we think. How we think matters to design. Design matters to sales and traffic.

Snap Decisions and Impulse

How often have you visited a web site and been turned off in a few seconds?

We react. We make snap decisions. If you watch people use websites, you will notice they will sometimes make what seems like intuitive decisions. Sometimes they want more time and data because some choices require longer consideration. However, studies show if you provide too much information, the ability to make a decision runs a higher risk of causing errors or inability to process the information. This is one reason why application development is so tricky. To buy a computer online requires a lot of content to help with decision making, but too many steps in the process, pages to read, decisions to make, factors to consider and guess what? User fatigue.

Your marketing investment has to consider the user experience or you’re throwing money away.

A new book called Blink, written by Malcolm Gladwell, is about “the power of thinking without thinking” and the ability to do “thin slicing”, which is making accurate conclusions based on little information. It’s a fascinating read for anyone wanting to understand how people make decisions. It offers insight into our intuitive process. The book may help with both user centered design and marketing by forcing us to think harder about what really happens out there.

One story in the book talks about how Tom Hanks was hired to play an astronaut in Apollo 13. Hollywood producer, Brian Grazer, explained that everybody failed to envision Tom Hanks as an astronaut. But the movie was about a spacecraft in danger, and he explained, what actor do we want to see saved the most? Tom Hanks. The producer knew audiences loved him too much to watch him die. They already had the emotional connection based on how we “know” him from his various other characters.

What we think we know triggers decisions. Words have powerful associations. They can change our behavior. Visuals trigger certain responses. If clothing models don’t look like you, this may prevent you from buying or remaining on the web site. Word meanings vary. One study, illustrated in Blink, showed this clearly. When asked to put words into categories, it took longer to put the word “Entrepreneur” into the “Career” category when “Career” was first paired with “Female” than when “Career” was paired with “Male”.

Prior association influences how we interpret words. It also plays into how we navigate web sites, click on ads and develop confidence in a web site’s design.

Do Software Developers Need SEO, Usability and Accessibility?

If the application, such as shopping cart, online reservations, sales lead or order form is intended for use by people who can not use a mouse, hear, are blind or suffer from anything that requires assistive technology to allow them to use the Internet, the answer is “yes”.

Removing tables, incorporating CSS and adding text all are helpful organic SEO practices for application design. While you may not think a shopping cart needs to rank high in search engines, a contact or order form page has a good chance of doing that if optimized well. In this way, a search for “contact acme” will bring up the Contact page for the company rather than the homepage that requires an extra click and time to find where the Contact page is.

This small gesture is optimizing with usability in mind.

Dell is notorious for making buying a computer online frustrating. It still is, despite their continued efforts to improve. The expectation for “Build Your Computer” means just that. It means showing options and choices. It means comparing all the Vista software and offering use cases for each to help customers make a valid choice. It means explaining why higher a CPU may be helpful or why it may not be necessary. Are images optimized so that they appear in search engine image searches? Can someone who needs a Braille keyboard use one with a Dell product?

All of this information has to be easy to find and use, while not interrupting the purchase process.

Word of mouth marketing and usability are buddies.

While in the hospital for knee surgery, a nurse complained to my husband and me about the computer software she was using to monitor me with. My husband works for the software’s competitor, so he thought this was great information. He was getting user feedback on the competitor that he could take to his company. However, his company doesn’t do usability testing on their product. How these two companies sell their software is a mystery.

Bad user experiences may hurt sales eventually when the truth finally comes out. Is it worth the risk of not user testing your product? Can your company support the wrath of broken contracts, lawsuits and diminishing sales? Are you an SEO asked to market a product nobody cares about or wants?

What People Want is for Usability and SEO to Work Together

Search Engine Optimization is focused on findability. Search Engine Marketing is targeted advertising via paid positioning and ads. Both utilize traditional media, social media, blogs and user generated content. Both conduct keyword research and require content written to inspire and motivate.

The Usability field has many arms but the unifying goal is user focused. All roads lead back to how we use something, or better yet, how we want to use it. Usability satisfies user expectations, accessibility, creating momentum, and enabling tasks.

The User Experience arm concerns itself with how we conduct those tasks once we arrive to the site, likely via search, personal recommendation or a link. It includes how we learn a site’s navigation, how we read and understand content and user instructions, and whether we successfully arrive at the conclusion of a task.

Persuasive Design feeds in human behavior from a marketers’ perspective. Everything is tested to make sure something as simple as a color or word performs exactly as desired. Just because a keyword may be popular doesn’t necessarily equate to converting to sales or increased traffic.

Captology gets into how designs change what people believe or what they can do. Can your web site motivate someone to stop an unhealthy habit? Does it offer comfort to families suffering trauma, while also offering information and resources? Does your feedback form just beg to be used?

Does your website create a desire to visit when it is found in search engines or does it just take orders from “General Algorithm” and stand front and center when someone types in a word or two?

When your public announcement led everyone to your new web application, did they pounce on it and destroy the place or did they feel welcome, wanted, catered to and most of all did everything work? Or did things not go as you had hoped?

Try on those stockings

Understand how it feels to use your web site. Promote it with confidence. We’re in this together, usability and seo.

We may even want the same things.

Autgor:  Usability Consultant, Kimberly Krause Berg, is the owner of,, and Cre8asiteForums. Her background in organic search engine optimization, combined with web site usability consulting, offers unique insight into web site development.