Note: This article was originally written in August 2010 and published on a different website I was running at the time.
When Search Meets Web Usability is a great little book by Shari Thurow and Nick Musica about how to help users find what they are looking for on your website. One of the first things the authors do is to establish that their view that traditional search engine optimization (SEO) should go beyond optimizing content for search engines, and even beyond optimizing content for search engine users. In the book, they talk about search usability, the combination of SEO and web usability, and how it means optimizing the entire experience of finding what you are looking for on the web, regardless of how you search.
“On the web, it is easy to see why the word search is associated with search engines only…Billions of searches are performed on Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft Live every month. Millions of websites have a site search engine. Therefore, considering the tremendous use of web and site searches, millions of people associate online searching with search engines.”
“However, people do not use only the commercial web search engines to look for content on the web. People might go to a specific web page after they remember a reference from newspaper, billboard, television show, radio program, or even word of mouth…In addition, people might look for web content by clicking a link from an email, text message, or an online advertisement. They also locate web content by clicking links from one site to another, commonly known as surfing or browsing the web…When searching these other ways, we still “search.”
“On the web, search usability refers to how easily users can locate and discover content on a site via retrieval (searching/querying) and navigation (browsing).” When Search Meets Web Usability, pages 2 –3.
The book goes on to talk about information scent in great detail and many other search usability topics. Here are some of my favorites quotes from the book:
Understanding Audience Needs Up Front: “If searchers’ needs and abilities were not considered when determining the requirements, design, and programming of a website, then the site is likely to require more changes and enhancements. Result? Businesses must allocate more staff and/or more staff time to a website to fix problems that should have been addressed before the site was launched.” p. 14
Large Flash Animations and Videos Can Be Distractions: When users are on transactional searches, “don’t delay, diminish, distract from, or hide the scent of information by initiating an action” (p. 70) such as playing a video or displaying a Flash animation. “Many Flash sites appear to be misleading links in search listings because searchers do not see keywords in the search listing also appearing on the landing page.” p. 80
Searching Does Not End When a SERP Result is Clicked: “Searching does not end after a person clicks a link from a search engine results page (SERP) to a website.” At that point, “they have two choices: They can either stay on your site, or they can abandon it.” p 71-72. Much of that decision rests on the information scent on the landing page.
Place Keywords and Calls to Action Prominently: “Recent studies show that users only read about 20 percent of the words on a web page. Therefore…important keywords and calls to action need to be featured prominently (above the fold) on web pages.” p. 72
Help Visitors Get Oriented: “The presence of easily scanned you are here cues makes users feel your site is trustworthy and credible.” p. 81 “Websites that facilitate scanning and orienting help searchers reach their goals more quickly and efficiently; increasing user confidence, trust, and credibility; and can help sites achieve and maintain top search engine positions.” p. 85
Search Usability Reduces Costs: “The more a call center or customer’s support is resolved online the less need there is to staff a call center or customer service department. That could mean significant savings for a company’s bottom line. Search usability efforts can help control operational expenses by reducing the number of phone calls that customer service receives.” p. 98
Effective Landing Page Designs: “Everything cannot be the most important thing on a web page. Home pages are usually the biggest casualty of the ‘everything is important’ disease…By making everything look equally important, the message you are sending to users is that nothing is important…Additionally, the resulting web page often looks cluttered, which can irritate and confuse site visitors.” p. 110
Write with the Words People Use: Web “copywriters should have access to the results of keyword research to understand what words and phrases users use in their queries…and scanning, foraging, and browsing on your website. If possible, web copywriters should observe usability tests, talk with focus groups, and have access to other market research noting the words users use to describe products and tasks.” p. 116
Search Usability Impact on your Brand: “The more users are forced to muddle through your website not finding what they are looking for, the more your website communicates a negative brand experience.” p. 117
High Quality of Search Engine Traffic: “Traffic from the commercial web search engines is user initiated, pre-qualified, and task-based. Therefore, [these] users…should be more interested in your content than users who landed on your website by clicking links out of curiosity.” p. 121
Importance of Keyword Research: “Web usability professionals should familiarize themselves with the paid and free keyword research tools.” Through these, “you’ll see the most popular keywords users use to query, keywords usage trends, and variations of keyword phrases users favor.” p. 125
Understand Users Before You Build: “If you don’t take the time to understand your users, you can expect they will abandon your site and go to your competitors’. As a result, a good portion of your website maintenance will go to correcting your lack of user understanding.” p. 126
Focus Groups Are Not Usability Test: “Focus group participants may tell you that they want specific information and functionality on your website, but you really don’t know if that’s true until you usability test…People say one thing, but do another. Therefore, do usability testing if you want to know how users will use your site.” p. 131
Avoiding Unnecessary Features: “Features are only cool if users think they’re cool. Users may find features annoying and distracting. Avoid worshipping the cool. Focus on the useful and relevant.” p. 136
Don’t Start Construction without a Blueprint: “One of the biggest and most common mistakes made when building websites is when graphic designers go straight to [a] graphics program and start designing. This is like a construction company starting to construct a building without a blueprint…Bad information architecture will cripple your [website].” p. 137
Look and Feel are Easy to Change, Information Architecture Is Not: “Look and feel, and the emotions evoked from images, are very important, but those shouldn’t be pursued at the expense of the website information architecture. More thought and discussion is typically put into a photograph that can be easily swapped out than the backbone of the site—the information architecture. This needs to change if search usability is to succeed.” p. 138
Insight by Watching Someone Use Your Site: “Watching a user freely explore your website will open your eyes to stumbling blocks that you may have never considered otherwise.” p. 160
Good Web Sites Require User Feedback: “There are plenty of software applications and tutorials online that will help you technically put together a website. This explains why there are so many mediocre websites. You need to interact with people similar to your users if you want to create a good website.” p. 164
Ignore Users and They’ll Go Away: “You can be apathetic and ignore your users until they go away, or you can be empathetic and help your users, and they will eventually make your site a success.” p. 166