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Understanding Search Usability - Part 1

What all search professionals should know about search engine optimization and website usability.

The term "search usability" is widely misunderstood throughout a variety of industries: Web design/development, search engine marketing (SEM), online advertising, information sciences, human-computer interface (HCI), and usability industries. Even the term "usability" is misunderstood by search professionals.

Download the 6 Facets of Website Usability infographic.

Every time I hear an SEO professional claim that his or her firm implements web site usability best practices, I wait to hear about the formative and summative usability tests performed. And I wait… and I wait… and I wait… and I wait. Then I go about my daily business because I will wait forever.

In my opinion, the vast majority of SEO professionals do not give a hoot about user-centered design (UCD), or, more accurately, usage-centered design. Nevertheless, they use these terms during a sales pitch or a conference presentation because it sounds pretty impressive, doesn't it?

In today's article, I hope to dispel some of the common misconceptions about search usability, and to show how important search usability is to the search industry.

Usability, Focus Groups, and Web Analytics

One of the most ignorant (and defiant) statements I ever heard from a client about website usability was, "Our site is user friendly! Millions of people use it every day." After I picked up my jaw from the floor, I had to patiently explain some differences among web site usability, focus groups, and web analytics.

Website usability is task oriented, meaning that usability testing measures the efficiency of how users (who fit a specific persona or profile) complete a desired task. Testing is done one person at a time, not as a group, and each participant's behavior and actions are carefully observed and recorded.

"Website usability is task oriented. Focus groups measure group opinions. Web analytics data does not tell us why site visitors clicked (or didn't click) on links."

I have personally witnessed, countless times, many participants say how beautiful they think a website is and subsequently never complete the desired task. I have observed many participants say they will take one action and then do something else. You can have the most beautiful, award-winning website with top search engine positions…and little or no conversions because the site just is not user friendly.

Focus groups measure group opinions about an interface. A focus group's measurements are not task oriented. One negative aspect of focus groups is a herd mentality. People often change their opinion of a website so they can fit in with the rest of the group.

Personally? If I do not like an interface and genuinely would not use it, no amount of peer pressure is going to get me to change my opinion. But that is just me. Peer pressure often yields poor interfaces.

Web analytics certainly provides useful data, but actual users are not observed interacting with a website. That one-on-one interaction is crucial to determining why desired tasks are not being taken on a web site.

And therein lies the key to understanding SEO and web site usability: the human factors. Why do people do what they do before and after they arrive on your web site? By objectively observing target audience members and carefully analyzing their search behavior, web site owners can improve their web sites. Jill Whalen said it so nicely in a column:

Everything that we teach people to do in SEO has a purpose, and that purpose is not to make the search engines think our site is better than it is. The purpose is to actually make the site better than it is.

--Jill Whalen

Berrypicking and Search Usability

n order to understand search usability, I believe one must fully comprehend the concept of berrypicking. Back in 1989, UCLA professor Marcia Bates wrote a landmark search behavior paper entitled The Design of Browsing and Berrypicking Techniques for the Online Search Interface.

Even though Google and Yahoo were not yet in existence when she wrote and published her article, Bates' research is applicable to the commercial web search engines. Many people want to believe that searching is a linear behavior, and it is not. Searching comprises a wide variety of behaviors including, but not limited, to:

  • Querying
  • Refining
  • Expanding
  • Browsing/surfing
  • Pogo-sticking (or pogosticking)
  • Foraging
  • Scanning
  • Reading

The term search usability applies to all search behavior, not only one search behavior, and that is why Bates' research and findings are so monumental. She recognized long ago that berrypicking behavior is the true behavior of information searchers, and that this knowledge can guide us to design more effective interfaces (in our case, web pages).

Search Engine Optimizers vs. Usability Professionals

The problem with many SEO professionals is that they only focus on the following search behaviors:

  • Querying
  • Refining
  • Expanding

Usability professionals, on the other hand, tend to focus on the following search behaviors:

  • Browsing/surfing
  • Pogo-sticking (or pogosticking)
  • Foraging
  • Scanning
  • Reading

I understand why usability and HCI professionals tend to ignore querying behavior when they study search behavior. During interface testing, participants tend not to exhibit querying behavior overall. They scan, browse, read, and pogostick. Therefore, in the website usability industry, the term "search usability" has come to mean only the usability of querying interfaces (e.g. the search box, search results pages, defensive design of search interfaces, etc.)

7 Facets of the User ExperienceEnter the commercial web search engines. Now, querying behavior has emerged as a very popular and profitable industry. In an effort to distinguish themselves from black-hat SEO practitioners, many usability professionals prefer to differentiate search-friendly design and search engine-friendly design. To usability professionals, search-friendly design is user-centered or usage-centered design. The focus is on end users. Search engine-friendly design, on the other hand, is a design for information retrieval systems only.

Want your website to show up in the top 10 results in Google? Then design a web site only for Google. Want your website to show up in the top 10 results in Yahoo or Bing? Then design a website for Bing. Cloak all of these sites and make sure you redirect them to the "real" site when you believe you have detected an actual human user. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Of course, I was being sarcastic in the previous paragraph. Experts in the usability and information sciences industries tend to have a negative attitude toward search engine optimization. They shouldn't. Not all SEOs are black-hat practitioners.

I empathize with usability and HCI professionals. Taking end users out of the design/development process seems completely illogical. Google isn't going to spend thousands or millions of dollars on a website's products and services. End users will. Besides, the search engines want what searchers want, and searchers want to be delivered to high-quality websites that meet user expectations.

Nevertheless, usability and HCI professionals need to face reality: people search. People use the commercial web search engines for research, shopping, browsing, and entertainment. Just as SEO professionals should not ignore other types of search behavior, usability professionals should not ignore querying behavior.

The term "search usability" addresses all search behaviors on a single website, not only querying behavior, and not only browsing behavior. A user-friendly, search-friendly website accommodates berrypicking behavior and delivers searchers to the information they desire as quickly and easily as possible.

Understanding Search Usability - Part 2 >>


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