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Usability & Internet Search Marketing: A More Unified Approach

For years there were two camps – website usability and search engine optimization. Rarely did they acknowledge each other, let alone work as a team. Each side argued they knew best how to make web pages findable in search engines.

They’re both right.

The website usability house is focused on human behavior. They follow along as people, or “users” as they’re referred to, use websites. User experience and user interface design offers challenges because our needs constantly change as we adapt to living and using the Internet to get information.

Search engines want user interaction information and data so they can continue to deliver what people want and how they want it presented.

Search engine optimization, on the other hand, is less focused on what users want and more on influencing user decisions. The early attempts were gentle nudges with source code that spoke to search engines quietly in the background, describing the topic of a site and directing bots to specific pages.

As search engine technology advanced and grew more complicated, so did SEO skills. It’s better known today as Search Engine Marketing. The goal is to direct users to specific websites, via advertisements, sponsored links, PPC ads to specific landing pages, optimized content and even choices of images and video.

Both camps are deeply involved in the art of people finding something via the Internet. Both are fascinated by you.

Search & Intent

Search marketing and user experience
Where and how we search is important for usability and search engine marketing.

Search engine marketers and usability engineers want to understand why we go to websites and what we do after we arrive at a search results page. They ask questions like:

  • Are we satisfied with where we landed?
  • Did the engine provide accurate results listings?
  • Was our click choice a positive one?
  • Did we stay on the site or leave?
  • If we left, what search result better matched what we wanted to find?
  • Was it the search results or did we have a bad experience with the web page we landed on?

Both search engines and human factors related fields study our intent.

Author Matt Bailey points to the depth of the importance of intent in his new book, Internet Marketing: An Hour a Day.

“Search engines are integrating more multimedia and allowing deeper access to documents and media earlier in the search process. They are attempting to determine the intent of the searcher and deliver results accordingly.”

What is our intent? Why do we visit the Internet? Why do we use search sites such as Google and Youtube?

In a 2009 ComScore study (comScore, 2009), they found that “Nearly one out of every ten minutes a person spends online around the world is spent on a Google site.” This includes the search engine itself, Youtube, which they own, Google books, email, Google reader and more.

Clearly, marketers want to be sure their clients’ websites perform well in Google’s web properties. Not doing so can wreck the success of a business.

Search Behavior = People Who Search

Shortly after search engines and information sites appeared on the Internet, case studies zeroed in to understand why, who, where, when, where and how humans use them. Hot on the trail, too, were analysts interested in learning about site traffic, popularity, rank and how to make money from it.

Many of you were guinea pigs during the 1990’s when web page backgrounds were gray with black text, and animation, 3D images, scrolling text boxes, rotating banners and blinking images were all part of a typical user interface.

As fun as all those things were to create (I loved animating images), web designers had to buckle to user preferences.

Search engines learned what we really come to the Internet for. Perhaps search engine sites are not suitable for certain subject types when it comes to information searches. In order to improve search engine design and SEO marketing efforts, we try to understand user intent and goals for searching.

It’s been well established at this point that search engines are used by us to find information. What kinds of information are most popular?

A recent study from Australia on who uses search engines found that half of search engine queries were looking for a particular website, while the other 50% were split between ecommerce and popular culture searches.

The study also pointed to what is referred to as “leisure searches”. The findings present the idea of search sites not only for information gathering or shortcuts to web sites, but they’re also sources for leisure, with one in six of all searches estimated as being leisure searches.

The Australian study offered some surprising details for anyone wondering what we’re searching for, by subject. Adult site searches fell into the middle, with ecommerce being second, edged under a tad by popular culture topics. Health, weather, contemporary affairs and government are the least popular searches.

The study stood out from others because it included and factored in the lifestyle of their participants. This is different than user testing labs or Eye tracking tests. To their surprise, lifestyle choices had no measurable impact on the type of search queries. In fact, new questions were raised on user –searcher behavior.

For example, do Internet users tend to go to particular trusted web sites for information on healthcare, computing and contemporary affairs, rather than use search engines? Does the distribution of the most ranked subjects searched for represent user interests or the suitability of search engines for looking up certain types of topics?

Another study (Broder, 2002) narrows search engine user behavior as informational, navigational, transactional and leisure. Half the searches in the study were navigational and one-third, transactional. Half of all searchers know where they want to go.

What Does This Mean To Search Marketers?

The most obvious is that it’s time to accept usability studies into marketing strategy. And, user experience professionals can no longer devalue the role of search marketers. Both camps provide essential skills and expertise needed for web site projects.

A lot of what’s happening on the Internet is relationship building. The global community wants this so badly they invented social networking sites and social marketing to drive interest and generate revenue from these new site sources.

Emotional web design is no accident. We’re emotional beings. Empathy makes us connect with others.

“In life and business, focus on creating win-win situations. Look beyond the immediate sale in order to connect with customers as people.” – Steve Harper, The Ripple Effect.

Despite our developing mental models and creating user personas, we remain on the edge of understanding who uses our stuff. Wouldn’t it be grand if stakeholders got out of their offices and actually interacted with the people who use their websites?

I’ve often wished I could video people who multi-task at home, with one hand on a laundry basket, an ear to the cell phone and a hand reaching for the laptop nearby. What does that busy person search for and how? Can we make their experience less stressful?

Division between marketing and user experience will dissolve as both approaches discover they need each others’ data to do a better job for their clients.

There’s no question that a passion for usability and search engine marketing leads to their fascinating cousins, like information architecture, findability, captology, analytics and neurology. There’s also no question that money can be made by optimizing for and advertising in search engines.

Studying user behavior is a win-win for search engine technology, search marketing and website usability and human factors.

Cited Resources:

Broder 2002; A Taxonomy of Web Search (PDF)

Waller, Vivienne 2010; Not Just Information: Who Searches for What on the Search Engine Google?

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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