Web Site Usability and SEO

  |  November 21, 2005   |  Comments

Why do usability professionals still not comprehend SEM and SEO?

Nothing makes me happier than shopping on a user-friendly Web site, one on which I can easily find the products I’m searching for. With the holiday season close at hand, user-centered, search-friendly e-commerce sites will surely have the upper hand when it comes to sales and findability.

So why do usability professionals still not comprehend SEM (define) and SEO (define)?

Usability Testing

Web site usability focuses on what happens after users arrive on a Web site. When usability professionals perform formative tests on Web page prototypes, for example, the initial assumption is users have already landed on a specific page. Usability professionals observe what people do once they arrive on that page. Do they take the desired call to action? Do they understand what page they’re viewing? Is the prototype easy to navigate?

Nothing wrong with that. The focus of formative usability testing is to create a user-friendly interface. It isn’t how to encourage people to visit your Web site. That responsibility is usually relegated to the marketing department.

SEO Comes Before the Site Is Built

Why do I find this attitude among usability professionals so troubling? Because one of the biggest SEO myths is you begin an SEO campaign after a Web site is completed. The attitude is, "I have a user-centered Web site. Now, it’s time to hire an SEO/SEM firm."

If a Web site owner chooses to have a user-centered Web site and promote that site via search engine advertising, that’s great! This online marketing strategy packs the one-two punch of encouraging a target audience to come to a site, then making it easy for them to purchase.

Problems arise when Web site owners want to reduce their online advertising expenses through SEO campaigns. They have a user-centered Web site, and they’ve performed both formative and summative tests. It’s clear how much people like the site and perform desired calls to action. So why should owners change their sites?

Users use search engines... a lot. The number one way people discover new Web sites is through commercial search engines.

Usability Professionals, Get With the Search Program

Usability professionals must get their heads out of the testing labs and truly understand the full scope of search processes. Usability experts have done outstanding research and work on the browsing and scanning processes. Now they must put as much time and effort into the querying process.

Querying is an active process, something search marketers have known for years. People actively searching for a product or service are a great target audience because they’re pre-qualified prospects. In other words, active searchers are more likely to make a purchase.

Many usability professionals discount the querying process because once people arrive on a Web site, they’re more likely to browse than perform a search. Additionally, usability professionals don’t consider the search engine persona.

The search engine persona isn’t a primary persona because a search engine won’t purchase products and services from a Web site. Search engine spiders don’t fill out forms. However, a site’s information architecture communicates the same information to both humans and Web search engines.

Does a page appear focused to end users on a specific topic, for example? If so, the page likely appears keyword-focused to a search engine.

SEOs, Get With the Usability Program

On the flip side, many SEO experts need to get their heads away from their computers and into the testing labs. They tend to focus only on what happens before visitors arrive on a site, not after (particularly black-hat SEO experts).

As I outlined in my "Identifying SEO Experts" series, Web site usability is an intermediate SEO skill. If I expect usability professionals to comprehend all aspects of the search process (querying, browsing, scanning), shouldn’t search professionals also understand all aspects of the search process?

It’s time for usability and white-hat search professionals to unite. Together, their skill sets pack the one-two punch that will knock everyone else out.

Meet Shari at Search Engine Strategies in Chicago, December 5-8, 2005.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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Shari Thurow

Shari Thurow is the founder and SEO director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine marketing, Web, and graphic design firm. Acknowledged as a leading expert on search engine friendly Web sites worldwide, she is the author of the top-selling marketing book, "Search Engine Visibility," published through Peachpit Press. Shari's areas of expertise include site design, search engine optimization, and usability.

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