You Don’t Know Jack About Web Site Usability

Whenever I hear an SEO (define) or SEM (define) professional talk about creating a better user experience or an improved search experience, I wonder whether I’m listening to a beautifully orchestrated sales pitch or a well-informed scientific analysis. Search usability is certainly a hot topic in the SEO industry as a unique selling proposition (USP). But who are the search usability experts, and who are just blowing hot air?

Usability Testing vs. Focus Groups

How are Web site usability and SEO related? Web site usability has a direct impact on a site’s overall link development. Many sites contain similar information and appear at the top of search results. If two sites offer the same information, the site that gets linked to most often is the one with the intuitive interface. In other words, the site with unique content that’s easy to use gets the most high-quality links.

There’s a reason many Web site owners resort to free-for-all, low-quality links for link development: the site stinks. And it’s tough to admit that a Web site isn’t user friendly.

Flash isn’t currently search-engine friendly. If a site owner wants to implement Flash technology on his site, user testing should be part of the equation. If users can complete the desired tasks (add to cart, enroll in class, subscribe to newsletter, etc.) with Flash technology, then go with it. The SEO professional must find other text within the site to optimize. But if users have a hard time completing the desired tasks, question the implementation of the Flash technology, or even AJAX (define), on the site.

One of my clients is working with a well-known Web site usability company on a Flash interface for part of his company’s Web site. He brought me on board because he wanted to be sure the site’s search usability won’t be compromised. I like working with other usability professionals. I always learn something useful.

My client, who’s quite clever, decided to quiz the usability company’s people on their methodologies:

Client: Did you test these prototypes on actual users?

Usability firm: Yes, we did. They loved the prototypes.

Client:: What tasks did you have them perform?

Usability firm:: What do you mean?

Client:: How far into the application process did they go? Were there any roadblocks that are worthy of our attention?

Usability firm:: Nope, no roadblocks. Overall, everyone liked it.

Client (confused expression on his face):: Did you test these prototypes?

Usability firm:: Yes.

Client:: What is the difference between a focus group and usability test?

Usability firm:: They are the same thing.

Client:: (Long pause.) OK, thank you.

My client picked up the phone and called me immediately. I felt his pain. Of course, I’m more than happy to run some real usability tests for him, and I certainly empathize with his frustration.

Usability Testing Is a Must

I strongly encourage all Web site owners and SEO professionals to read books and articles written by highly educated and experienced usability experts, such as Jakob Nielsen, Jared Spool, and Eric Schaffer. I always appreciate seeing their recommendations implemented.

Nonetheless, all three usability experts publish their guidelines as guidelines. A true Web site usability professional will test those guidelines on a specific group of people who fit a profile. Many general usability principles test well on a specific user group, but many don’t. Just because an SEO professional implements usability principles doesn’t mean he’s a usability expert. The missing ingredient?


You must observe targeted users interacting with an interface. You must be objective. You must not lead users into completing a desired task with your feedback. In other words, you have to shut up and listen.

I can’t tell you how often I hear SEM professionals who specialize in search engine advertising claim they understand the user experience. What they understand is A/B testing, multivariate testing, and focus group data. That data is valuable, but they aren’t user tests.

Many SEO professionals who specialize in Web analytics and conversion analysis don’t test usability. I’m a Web analytics evangelist, but I understand the difference. You can’t determine why people don’t complete desired tasks from only Web analytics data. The facial expressions, the body language, the direct feedback, the eye-tracking — all these things come into play during usability testing.

If you truly want to promote your SEO/SEM firm as one that understands the user experience, usability-test or work with a reputable firm that does. Otherwise, you’re only giving your personal opinion, not the opinion of and actual data from clients’ users.


I can’t begin to describe the impact usability testing has had on my SEO and Web development. It’s a very humbling experience, every time, to observe actual users interact with my interfaces. I always learn something new. I listen to my SEO/SEM colleagues talk about the user experience all the time, and I know the vast majority of them don’t test. I hope that changes in the near future.

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