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Friday, November 25th, 2005

Measuring Importance – Usability Strategy Ranks High With Search Engines

 

Usability is already a critical component of successful online ventures but with the advent of Google Analytics and the implementation of the Jagger algo update, user-activities and behaviours are going to play an influencing role in search engine rankings. How people act when they visit a website or document is being measured and accounted for, even for sites without Google Analytics tracking codes in the [head] section of the document source-code.

Google is concerned with how people find information and what they do when they access a document found in the Google index. Which document in a site they tend to land on, how long users spend on that document and how much, if any, time does a user spend exploring information in a domain, are all pertinent to how Google perceives the relevance of documents listed in the index. As long-term online marketers know, this is where usability comes into the picture.

Usability, as defined by Kim Kraus Berg is, “… the ability to successfully, comfortably and confidently learn or complete a task. For the web site designer or application developer, it’s the mechanics of designing and building a web site or Internet-based application so that it can be understood and easy to accomplish any task.”

According to local (Victoria-based) website marketing expert, Michael Linehan, a focus on site usability is simply common sense marketing. Leading visitors towards goal-orientated outcomes makes as much sense for a functioning website as it does for a functional building and, to follow through on the analogy, it all starts with a smart architect.

Michael knows his stuff, so much so StepForth considers him to be one of our marketing and site usability gurus. If our assumptions about user-behaviours and the post-Jagger Google SERPs are correct, Michael’s talents will play an important role in our overall SEO techniques.

“It’s all about marketing,” Michael explains (exclaims is probably a better word, ML is pretty passionate about this stuff), “and marketing is all about envisioning an effective strategy.” While most people involved in business understand the concept, surprisingly few actually take the time to implement and follow a marketing strategy in relation to their websites.

“Website owners have to prioritize their messages and make their websites easier to use. It’s a matter of measuring the importance of different parts of their marketing strategy and their websites.”

Michael suggests that over 95% of companies he has worked with use opportunistic marketing tactics with separate strategies being employed out of sync with each other. A simple example would be the Yellow Pages ad that does not mention the website URL or a printed brochure that does not include an email address in the contact information. A more complex example can be found by looking at most business websites.

“When a business owner gets a website for their business, they often expect the designer to know how to market their new website.” said Michael. “That’s just ludicrous. Website designers already have a difficult and mentally demanding job. Expecting them to be proficient marketers is like expecting your architect to act as your real estate agent.”

Michael deconstructs websites, pulling them apart to find or add the little things specific to a business website designers often can’t customize for. His work could be described as user-outcome optimization.

He has a good point. Search engine marketing is becoming much more complicated. The web is rapidly adopting a more professional attitude as it grows into the global mainstream marketplace. As this maturing takes place, two factors should drive website owners and webmasters towards a more professional view of their online marketing strategies.

The first factor is the increased analytic abilities of the major search engines. As previously mentioned, Google is taking stock of a number of user-sensitive factors surrounding documents in its index. In March 2005, Google filed a patent titled, “Information retrieval based on historical data“. The patent application outlines the historic record Google keeps on every document and file in its index. One of the items mentioned covers user behaviours touching on the following points:

  • how much time an average user spends examining a document,
  • the entry and exit paths of users,
  • if users store reference to the document in bookmarks,
  • how users access the document (via search engine, typing URL, link from other document, or bookmarks),
  • an evaluation of search traffic driven by Google and related keywords the document was found under

Each of those points should lead webmasters to think about how visitors use their site. Website marketing is not necessarily about search engine placements. It is about using your website as a marketing tool. In the context of website marketing, usability is about moving visitors from the entry point to the goal line and off again to another compellingly relevant website experience.

The second factor is the evolving needs of website users and their increased analytic abilities. The Web is almost second nature to most of its users. People are experienced in the environment and, at least in the case of work-related web use, know what they want. As it stands today, there are a lot of websites that no longer live up to user expectations because those expectations have moved beyond the design of those websites.

Usability is a component in smart and informed website marketing simply because it implies making the website experience simpler and clearer for visitors. Strategically moving a site visitor from the entry point to the information or sales point (goal lines) is common sense. It is also providing the visitors exactly what they want.

Google placing more weight on user behaviours makes sense. User behaviour is a logical extension of the democratic concept of PageRank in that the users’ collective judgment is incorporated into that of the webmasters who coded incoming links. Webmasters of sites supporting AdWords advertising are already super-charged, stoked about Google providing detailed data that can help drive traffic.

All good marketing strategies are goal orientated and center around a clear vision. As time goes on, it can get pretty complicated, especially when clarity and ease of use are the ultimate design goal. Objective planning might involve rethinking the design of your website but moving into the near future, rethinking the design of your website might just become essential.


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