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SEO and Usability



SEO and Usability

The requirement for websites to be usable above all else seems reasonable, if not obvious, since otherwise they cannot fulfil their function efficiently - if at all. However, there are two factors that often conspire to prevent a site being easy for visitors to use: the inflexibility of both the designers and the owners.

In the first place, a website is normally built by people who are good at building sites, not necessarily designing them. They have a set way to do this, and it may not be the best for ease of use, and in fact may not even be varied for different types of sites. Also, web technology such as CMS and ecommerce applications may prevent designing for most efficient use in the particular type of site concerned. 

Secondly, clients want their websites to look and work a certain way, perhaps in the style of other sites in that market, or simply because they feel it should be so.

The end result - especially when the two factors combine - can be a site that appears exactly what all parties need, but does not make a visitor's task easy. Hardly anyone seems to worry about this, until finally it is recognised that the website isn't performing as well as it might.
Website usability

Usability is the foundation of a website: it determines whether the site works or not. It is a core component of search engine optimising because sales or other goals cannot be achieved if the website is hard to use, or confusing, or simply doesn't make a user's task as easy as possible. Websites need to be designed from the start with a goal in mind; and after that, come all the other requirements. The worst way to design a website is to start with either an art concept or a prebuilt layout and not adjust it first and foremost for usability.

Online, usability defines the ease with which a user can extract the desired information from a resource within a website, or achieve other goals the user or resource may intend - such as locating and successfully downloading a file, or purchasing something. 'Resource' is used here in its widest sense, as anything served on the web.

It can be tested by asking a range of people unfamiliar with the website or resources, or their purpose, to navigate their way to a prescribed result. The subjects may be competent computer users or beginners; they may be young or old; variation is required. Then usability experts examine the results, to determine where improvements can be made.

If the resource has a function that only those experienced in a given area will be able to appreciate, then a range of such people should be employed to test it. If the resource specifically addresses the needs of one particular user group (such as children of a particular age), then they should be employed to test it.

This description is an overly-complex way of stating that a web page, or anything similar, should be easy to use - unless it is a deliberate puzzle of some sort, or relies on a measure of obfuscation as an attraction. Some pages specifically for the youth market, or in the art world, may belong here.

In its basic form, usability is easy to establish: if the experience and goal achievement was quick, straightforward and painless, then the resource is is easy to use. This of course applies to an average user; but others may not have been so fortunate. Therefore, issues often arise as to how certain factors might be improved.

In the case of those less well-endowed with modern, large, bright viewing screens, or perfect eyesight, or perfect health - and so on - we ought to consider how best to make the experience as straightforward for all as possible. For commercial websites, this pays dividends in revenue, since an easier path equals better sales. This is so obvious that the 'path to sales' can be quoted as an item needing attention for correct search optimisation.

Usability online

It is a moot point whether classical models of usability measurement have any value in the online world. As regards normal IR models (information retrieval), there are considerable differences. Probably, evolving search patterns are a better fit, for website purposes. In any case, there is currently no online equivalent for the frequently successful offline physical search model where the enquirer has no definite idea of what they seek; searching a book will often produce a result when no previous concrete idea of the goal exists, but searching online is far less likely to succeed because it must be so much more precise in order to succeed.

Physical searches in the offline world often succeed due to a large measure of serendipity (a fortunate combination of chance and flexible search modes); but there is much less occurrence of this online, since the  normally inflexible search path restricts good fortune to a minimum. Luckily, online goals, when applied to a website with predefined targets, are much easier to achieve.

Usability testing

In our testing we identify what needs fixing, and fix it as quickly and economically as possible. Commercial corporate-level usability testing is fabulously expensive and long drawn-out; we cannot take that approach and simply do it quicker and cheaper. It may be that conclusions are not 100% accurate - inevitable considering the timeframes and budgetary constraints - but 90% accuracy should be good enough in most cases. However, if you have more than 20,000 visitors per day then a more detailed investigation will pay dividends (and will be affordable).

You should note that knowledge, skill, experience and above all aptitude are required to expedite this process. It cannot be done by software, which is why, as a crucial and core component of search engine optimising, it has to be done by experts, as against search engine submitters.

In conclusion, we will look at some good and bad examples of  website usability. Most websites fall somewhere in the 'average' department. Ecommerce sites frequently drop below this into the 'poor' sector, despite the fact that more than any other site, they need to be 'good'. Simply put, the best website in the usability area would be a single Notepad-like page with large text, and not much of it, with right in the middle of the page a very large text button (and an arrow) linked to the out door, CLICK HERE TO EXIT.

So you can see that, as with everything else in life, there have to be compromises.

Usability and User Experience

Around 2008, most web businesses had realised that in order to succeed, a website had to be more than a shop window. It had to perform. From that point on it became acceptable to ask website designers, builders and managers to supply a web product that incorporated what the visitor preferred, rather than what the owner preferred. Before about 2008, such ideas were fragmented and considered the preserve of eccentric academics, even though good website constructors had always realised this approach was necessary, and it had been long accepted offline.

User experience then became more than usability design; it had become a term that incorporated all the other elements in user interaction. Everyone has different opinions about these concepts because there is no proper definition and it is not a science. We think it should be approached firstly as an interaction chain from first landing on a site, through the acquisition process (acquiring whatever the visitor came for), to leaving the site and then returning later. The last is a critical element in web design because of the simple fact that many purchases or sign-ups will occur on a second or third visit; so there have to be very good reasons for the customer to return.

For us, usability, credibility and quality will always be the premier factors. You can call it UX if you like, but those of us with more than half a brain simply call it doing things right.

The world's worst websites

The worst are equally easy to define, and even to find. A good candidate for the World's Most Unusable Website is the W3C website [1], www.w3c.org. This probably attempts to educate users as to best practice in web authoring, and perhaps to provide guidelines in that area. Unfortunately, the W3C are the Kings of Obfuscation and cannot either write clearly-purposed documents or provide solutions to the problems they identify. They are so desperately eager to avoid offending anyone that their website, viewed purely as a resource for improving other websites, is an abject failure. Also, try validating a web page and then finding resources on the W3C site to fix it and do it properly: http://validator.w3.org - good luck!

Perhaps this goes to show that (a) to make an omelette you have to break some eggs, and (b) you might think you know what you're doing, but why not ask someone else's opinion? If they needed to actually sell something, their presentation would have to be very, very different indeed.

Another fine candidate for World's Worst Website, for usability only, of course - otherwise, it looks very pretty - is BT Tradespace, http://www.bttradespace.com . This is something of a classic, in that almost everything it is possible to get wrong has been achieved [2]. It defies description, only in that a list of faults would cover several pages, and might not be comprehensive. Somehow, it manages to exclude, infuriate, or alienate every possible type of (potential) user. This is surely an achievement that should not go unheralded.

Before you visit it to evaluate its attractions, consider this enchanting scenario: what if an average member of BT's staff were visited personally by the Chairman, and given instructions to visit the site for the first time and construct BT's corporate presence on the site - starting from scratch. They would need to be a strictly average computer user, and simply given a piece of paper with the firm's address and other details - just like the average user visiting an average directory to submit to it, in fact.

Do you think the Chairman would be happy with the result? Do you think the hapless staffer could do it in under an hour? Do you think they would thank you for the experience? I feel the answers must unfortunately be negative in all areas. A shame, really, because whoever had the idea in the first place deserved much better implementation from their colleagues. Whilst it could so easily have been a contender for the Very Useful Site Of The Year award, it is almost in a class of its own competing for the World's Worst Directory award. And, the last question: could you describe this Directory as SEO-friendly? Please cover your ears during the reply...

Sorry to be the first to complain about these apparently perfect resources, but usability is the forgotten factor, it seems - certainly at management level. It is frankly amazing how many people will put up willingly with the very low standards these two websites demonstrate, without even whispering a complaint. It might be the phenomenon of the Emperor's New Clothes, of course; no one wants to be the first to speak out in case they look stupid. What amazes, is that people who have access to the resources of these huge organisations can make such a mess of it. It only remains to pity the poor users of such apologies for a website, and that's you and me.

Just try not to make the same mistakes - they're obvious enough. Try to use these sites, and list all the faults. If your sheet has less than ten major sins listed after you try to accomplish anything basic, you must have been half-asleep or on a happy pill. Probably the latter.

Web pages that suck

Any discussion of these monstrosities is not complete without mention of that timeless chronicler of the grim website, WebPagesThatSuck.com

The architect's websites here, in particular, are hilarious - a triumph of appallingly bad design over function. As a group, they show how a profession can get sidetracked by utterly useless fripperies, and be completely unaware of it. Or is there another agenda? Perhaps the web designers' union has decided that architects themselves are unnecessary, so in fact it doesn't matter if you cannot work out what their individual firm's policies are - or even contact them. It would surely be uncharitable to think of the union of an architect and a potty web designer as a marriage made in heaven...


[1] W3C update: August 2007 - looks as if they are finally doing something about it! Perhaps then, ten years of misery has proved sufficient...  It remains to be seen, though, if they can (a) provide clear and complete solutions to problems they identify; and (b) if they can make these solutions easily accessible. We shall see.

[2] BT Tradespace update: December 2007 - seems as if they found some people to fix it, at last. Now, you can even log in from the front page - miraculous! Unfortunately, sins cannot be hidden from those who know where to look: the IA Internet Archive or Wayback Machine knows all...



The SEO Q&A panel

Audience question, to SEO experts panel: "How can I make sure Goggle indexes my pages correctly?"

Bruce: "You'll need a 5.75% k/w ratio plus a 3:1 PR sculpture on the critical pages along with a minimum CTR ratio for the landing page ROI profile of 3 ex 5."

(I was a little too far away but it sounded like that.)

Jill: "Oh, I shouldn't bother too much, just write it naturally. Don't worry, be happy."

Aaron: "Ignore them, they are parasites."


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