SEM and Site Usability

Usability and search friendliness go hand in hand. If products and services are easy to find, and the Web site easy to use (resulting in higher conversions), the site should easily maintain high-quality search engine traffic. Yet many search engine marketing (SEM) firms offering search-engine-friendly design don’t have staff trained, certified, or experienced in Web site usability.

Search Friendliness 101

To make a site easy to find in the Web search engines (Google, Yahoo, MSN Search, and Teoma), a Web page should contain the words and phrases people type as queries into search boxes. The page must appear somewhat focused on those specific keyword phrases. If your site sells payroll accounting software for Windows, for example, those four keywords (“payroll,” “accounting,” “software,” “Windows”) should be featured prominently and frequently throughout the site.

Additionally, when visitors from a search engine land on a Web page, they want to see their query words on that page. Seeing those words makes visitors feel more confident they arrived at the most appropriate page on your site. Prominent, focused keyword phrases help encourage visitors to take a desired action or to continue navigating your site.

Search friendliness is an integral part of the site design, usability, copywriting, and sales processes. Why hasn’t the site development industry caught on?

Part of the problem lies with the SEM industry, and part of it lies with the site design industry.

Problems Within the Search Industry

The emergence of Google AdWords and Overture meant many agencies specializing in ad writing and media buying could be part of the search industry. Of course, the search engines wholeheartedly support the agencies and search-advertising firms because they represent immense profits; search engines don’t directly benefit financially from optimization.

If you talk to some search engine ad reps, you’ll find many are completely ignorant about the optimization process. It’s a shame, since search engines couldn’t sell ads if their search functions didn’t deliver relevant, useful results. That’s what the white-hat optimization process does: it helps search engines deliver more relevant, useful search results.

Part of the fault lies in the term “search engine marketing.” As I mentioned before, “SEM” has been used inappropriately. SEM encompasses a wide variety of services, including optimization, not just search engine advertising.

And because many ad agencies’ designers lack SEO (define) and usability skills, SEO doesn’t receive the attention it formally did.

“Search-engine friendly” can also cause trouble. It’s come to mean designing and writing sites purely for search engine positions. Agencies, search marketers, and clients should comprehend the difference between search friendliness and search-engine friendliness. If a site is search friendly, it’s also more user friendly because visitors can find what they’re searching for via browsing or using a site search engine. And if a site is search friendly, in all likelihood, it’s also search-engine friendly.

Unfortunately, many SEM firms are more focused on top positions than on building user-friendly, persuasive sites that convert visitors into buyers. They don’t want to worry about usability and conversions. They only care about positioning. Perhaps if their technical staff had more design and usability skills, agencies wouldn’t worry so much about search marketers ruining site design.

Problems Within the Site Design Industry

Danny Sullivan once mentioned to me how surprised he was the site development industry didn’t seem to clearly understand search. I agree. Why are so many Web-standards advocates narrow-minded when it comes to search friendliness? They seem so concerned with promoting their personal beliefs they don’t look at the big picture.

Web sites don’t exist in a vacuum. If visitors can’t find a site through search, browsing, and link development, standards aren’t going to matter.

Though search-engine-friendly site designers are learning about Web standards and applying those principles to sites, Web-standards advocates don’t seem to understand the search business. Search is such a huge component of usability, sales, and design. To ignore search (or diminish its importance) is somewhat troubling.

Usability professionals almost understand search friendliness. They understand how to develop more useful search functions and search results pages. But they need to take it a step further: a search function on a site delivers more accurate results if the site is naturally search friendly.


Search-engine-friendly site designers should have usability skills and training. Top search engine positions aren’t a final goal when creating a Web site. Sales and conversions are. Site usability supports both: getting qualified visitors to a site and converting visitors into buyers. When all (search engine reps, search marketers, ad agencies, usability professionals, Web-standards advocates, designers, developers) fully grasp this concept and apply it to their sites, everyone wins.

Meet Shari at Search Engine Strategies in New York City, February 28-March 3.

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