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April 11, 2008

Bundling SEO with Usability – The Convergence of Holistic Search Marketing

As technologies converge to more adequately serve their respective audience, it is no surprise that bundling services to facilitate customer loyalty is a common tactic for increasing brand loyalty. Some things just work better together such as SEO and website usability.

It is only a matter of time before search engine optimization evolves and starts to bundle on-page usability services for businesses to complement the off-page optimization process seamlessly. Getting traffic to your site is important, however making sure they easily grasp and engage your content is even more important.

Search Engine Optimization can benefit from implementing facets borrowed from web usability analysis such as identifying the mental model of the target audience. Similarly in SEO the focus is on keywords, whereas the focus should equally implement removing unnecessary steps that preclude users from reaching an optimal degree of satisfaction.

Until now, the process of SEO was rather one-dimensional in regard to embracing the prospect behind the search as the focus was contingent on keywords or key phrases instead of the user experience. Usability is the natural evolution of on-page search engine optimization and the science of user interaction.

The New SEO Model Places Equal Emphasis on User Retention

The new proposed holistic model of SEO and usability is all-encompassing and includes tactics for optimizing every facet of conversion process starting with the method a potential prospect may use to find the target site. Engagement metrics such as what they do when they get there (task analysis) and how satisfied they where when they depart inevitably impact the impression of your brand to the prospect and how likely it is to appeal to others from that genre.

This is the next logical step for online marketing services as advertising and branding are not as clear-cut and obvious online. Using analytics to capture search data, such as younger generations use search engines 50% more to find content than older demographic profiles, who have a higher propensity for using links by contrast to find content online.

Applying the information gathered from statistics on search behavior could preemptively impact how you choose to market your services to each respective audience. For example, if your target audience is 45-55 years old, then focusing on more contextual content (like reviews, press releases or news sources) and using links to promote your website could increase conversion and click through rates dynamically, instead of using PPC (Pay Per Click Advertising) and expecting that group of consumers to find or click your advertisements in search engines.

In essence, catering to the natural tendency of the prospect is the key to unlocking your sites hidden potential and funneling droves of traffic to your pages. By leveraging the continuity of their expectations known as population stereotypes (what prospects expect to see) and your ability to deliver solutions. You can position your value-proposition tactfully and naturally capture a larger percentage of a market segment. Not through random assumptions, but rather through factual data gathered from analytics, usability studies and statistics.

The Expansion of the Definition of Design

To reference the topic of design, components such as font selection, color choice and how intuitive your site navigation is structured inevitably impacts the emotional state of the reader. A site that is designed for a teenage user may not go over will with the 35 and up demographic, nor would large 16 point fonts and colors with high saturation appeal to the 20’s crowd (since it lacks aesthetic appeal).

This is the value of usability, knowing what, why and how to reach your audience by studying their habits, interests and known limitations. Adding an 8pt font on an elderly site which has users ranging from 60 years old and up would not facilitate a high degree of user engagement, but on the contrary discourage it. Ironically, many companies either through oversight or ignorance create inherent visual or functional roadblocks that inhibit users from experiencing their content due to disparity or cognitive incongruence.

Just because analytics and research can identify patterns, trends or behavior modifications in a target group, does not mean that the scope of analysis alone is enough for your business to capitalize on it. With content and links patched together with rag-tag code and orphaned pages from poor navigation, sometimes starting fresh with a new site is the best solution.

The Benefits Website Redesign

This is where SEO comes in handy. Working from the data gleaned during analysis, a search engine optimization specialist can then implement themed site architecture, links and organic positioning strategies that when combined with usability task flow analysis create the perfect one-two knockout punch for increasing user engagement.

The objective of search engine optimization is to create the highest degree of thematic relevance to include your content in the top 10 results. The objective of usability is to allow users to execute tasks with the least amount of resistance. Optimization as a whole is realized through this synergy. However, what value does SEO have if your pages violate every known axiom that is conducive to a pleasant user experience?

In order to fully appreciate the range of human emotions and how they pertain to usability and click behavior, concepts such as the VIMM Model (Visual, Intellectual, Memory and Motor) requirements that determine visitor interaction must be taken into consideration.

Does your Design Send Users Packing?

If you introduce a radial button or drop down menu vs. a text field for capturing data, which forces you to enter a value from the keyboard. Then the time you take to remove your hand from the mouse and enter a value affects the overall user experience.

Multiply the effect across each facet of user based input and interaction required and contribute to creating user anxiety which can escalate a higher bounce rate from your pages. This is one minuscule example of usability and application and shows how introducing a simple motor function (such as scrolling) can hinder efficiency when it comes to using your prime website real estate.

Optimized usability sites are those that are self-evident (visually and intellectually) and do not require you to rely on memory (where is that button again), fine motor skills (clicking a 5 pixel target area) or having to perform a mental calculus operation to perform a simple task. Usability is about simplicity, much like optimization is about keeping only the essentials to streamline the theme of your content, links and code.

Keep Only What is Required to Fulfill the Needs of the User

I am not implying a stark minimalist website with one button, but moderation and function should be intimately connected. As a consequence of usability, user engagement can provide statistics based on trial, error and research to provide a basis for modifications to site architecture, navigation, the number of options presented or the structure of your content to satisfy the needs of the target audience.

The implication of design now supersedes previous facets primarily limited to navigation, images and graphic design. Now the term design implies the structure of the information such as the content, the semantic relationships between site architecture and the content, the information silos used to cluster the data to create relevance. Other factors such as contextual relevance determine if such taxonomy allows others to collectively grasp the information to endorse, interact or support it.

This convergence of search engine optimization, usability and analytics offer a distinct advantage over existing companies still employing a shot in the dark mentality when it comes to marketing.

Those who fail to integrate vital user information into a coherent plan of action only facilitate the void that separate the industry leaders from the clueless followers doomed to mimic their past out of the old if it isn’t broken don’t fix it school of thought.

Since it really boils down to objectivity, if a business is content with 1,000 visitors per month while their competition enjoys 100,000 then surely nothing is broken aside from the ambition of the management.

To say that there is always room for improvement is the starting point, but actually having the nerve to move beyond your comfort zone, or the comfort zone of your brand is another. AT&T for example, who we knew as the true blue traditional marketing targeted at adults (in the pre-cell phone era) has now integrated a new look and feel by adding a splash of orange to appeal to a youthful market (just look at the recent successful launch of the bundled ATT voice and data packages with the Apple IPhone).

Engage Your Audience or They Will Find a New Brand that Will

The point being, customers now have the power to embrace your business or ignore it like yesterdays news. Don’t believe it, ask the yellow pages who is still trying to recover as a result of brand stasis.

Moving forward denotes evolution, making intelligent choices that denote logical and emotional stability while creating content worthy of interaction. Such is the business model of the new millennium. This approach transcends colors, fonts, keywords or a call to action, but rather it incorporates a balance of all of the right elements to support a rich user experience.

This is one of many posts to follow over the next few weeks about the topic of SEO and usability and how they both complement branding and exposure. I recently completed The Science and Art of Effective Web and Application Design from Human Factors International.

I must admit, the quantity and quality of the information was astounding. Anyone truly interested in learning more about this topic should visit their site and inquire. If and when a course is available, I highly encourage you to take part in their exclusive and in-depth grasp of usability as a whole and their ability to share it so succinctly with others.

Jeffrey Smith is an active internet marketing optimization strategist, consultant and the founder of Seo Design Solutions Seo Company He has actively been involved in internet marketing since 1995 and brings a wealth of collective experiences and fresh marketing strategies to individuals involved in online business.