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User Experience Design With SEO

I was listening to yesterday’s weekly video show, Bill and Ammon’s Bogus Hangout and couldn’t stop thinking about two SEO topics mentioned by the guests.

Bill Slawski described an invasive tale of how much Google knows about human behavior and our habits, both on and off line.  They discussed clients that don’t care what their site looks like.  All they wanted to invest in was SEO.

It’s always fascinated me that some people seem to believe that Google, or any search engine, has the power to make their website successful. The only way to achieve success is to understand exactly what your specific target users want and design to meet their needs, not Google’s. Google is a search engine in constant training much like a child learning language, how to behave and how to make good decisions. It is constantly observing us, but it does not ever subscribe to our newsletter, fill out a form or make a purchase from our websites.

Your Website is a Performance

Of all the methodologies, project management plans, in-house procedures for design and development and departmental protocols, the one test that is never planned for is being successful. Like when Stephen Hawking’s Ph.D. doctoral thesis, “Properties of Expanding Universes”, crashed the Cambridge site after it was posted online this week. They were unprepared for success.  Previous experience tells us that the release of something special, from a cute Budweiser horses with a puppy ad, to an image that has gone viral means a spike in server load. It’s also a great opportunity to direct visitors to something else worth promoting. This is not simple SEO. This is performance testing. It is human factors. It is design for user experience because we know in advance what people do.

We also know what they want.

If you watch a play, the actors know what the audience wants to see and hear. They monitor reactions to help them perform better in the future. If a line is delivered too flat and there is not the expected response from the audience, they know they need to make an adjustment.

This is why user personas are helpful for designers.  One of the more popular mistakes is to design a website that only you, your employees or staff like. Another related mistake is testing a website or application during development in-house. While testing methodologies such as functional testing are done during development, any part of a web based project intended for use by the public has to be tested by choosing the types of people who are expected to use it.  Engineers process information differently from a consumer looking for birthday gift ideas on an ecommerce site. Both user personas are looking for solutions to problem solving but we know that engineers think logically and are less inclined to make emotionally-based decisions.

Removing Barriers

Without fail, my usability audits repeatedly tell the me the same story. An attractive website that is optimized for SEO, but is not designed for its target users, will struggle to meet conversions goals. It takes me seconds to verify if a client’s top business requirements are met. The most common barriers are within the user interface. It makes little sense to make a financial investment in SEO and PPC to rank well for search queries only to make visitors struggle to find what they came for.  I can’t stress this enough. Your customers are on a mission. They are not looking for entertainment.

Whenever a searcher lands on your homepage, it’s vitally important to quickly communicate what sets you apart from your competitors.  Think of it as communicating what you DO and ARE, as opposed to what you SAY or WANT. If you claim to be the “best”, you’ll need to provide proof. What your visitors see on a web page may hinder or help them understand your message and use your website.

If you’re planning a website or own one that is clumsy in how in how it looks and feels but strong on SEO, there are ways to beef up the content for people to respond to. However, even if you implement any of them, there is no getting around the fact that first impressions count and appearance matters. If the goal is to present a professional, credible first impression in the first few seconds, a web page or starting point of an app must be organized, uncluttered, readable, accessible and pleasant to look at.

A polished website supports your marketing investment, so it is important to focus on increasing user engagement and flow by making your pages responsive to the needs and desires of your site visitors.

Some basic guidelines include:

  • Make every task and call to action easy to find and use
  • Organize sections by prioritizing what your target market values the most
  • Use terminology they understand
  • Minimize distractions

A tremendous effort goes into ranking for a specific keyword or phrase, especially in competitive areas like ecommerce or travel. Ultimately, regardless of the colors, font faces, images and links, the only reason a person remains on a web page or app is that it has what they want or need and getting there is super easy for them. All failed conversions are traced to either not knowing what your users came for or having a functional defect that prevents them from completing a task. If it is next to impossible to see the gray text then there is a barrier to reading. If the first half of a page consists of an automatic slideshow with 5 images to promoted products they have to wait for to load or that shrinks to tiny size on a mobile device, this is a barrier. It’s rare to see a slider that loads fast, answers questions and assists in task completion.

Remove the barriers to seeing what you offer. Remove the barriers to task completion.

Place calls to action in the precise spot where it most logical to take action. For example, if you have a section of content that introduces a product, concept or solves a problem, before your visitor has a chance to move on to something else or be distracted, put the call to action in their path while they’re focused on the task. Remove distractions from these areas to help them stay on task.

Don’t hide what they need.  One common user need is knowing what payment methods you accept for products or services. Some ecommerce sites lose customers because they don’t accept the convenience of PayPal.  If a visitor wants to make a purchase and left their wallet with credit cards elsewhere, and you do not accept PayPal, you may have lost the sale. This is a common user behavior that goes ignored by inexperienced web designers.

Cutting Corners with Cheap or Inexperienced Help

Which brings me to web sites built by people or software that produce cookie cutter layouts.  Every web site is unique.  The worst possible mistake is copying someone else’s website layout.  It may not be working for them and you will have taken on the same issues. Or, it’s built for their specific target users and business requirements. Your requirements and target market are your own. If you were never asked questions about your business goals, company history, what sets you apart from the competition, or there was no research performed into the habits and preferences of your target users, you have chosen the wrong designer and wrong software.

Websites fail to perform because they weren’t designed by an experienced designer with skills in usability, user experience, accessibility, information architecture, conversions design, mobile design, forms design, and content writing.  If any one of these areas is weak, no amount of SEO is going to save it. Search engines are not the target user.

The best way to optimize for search engines is to prove you understand the people who use them and more importantly, what they want from you.

I do have clients who have web sites they ignore. They do the bare minimum of SEO and don’t invest in monitoring any performance data or search engine analytics. There’s no marketing strategy other than mentioning they have a site in their Facebook profile. I have one client who is an author with a website who writes for other websites but not her own.  Several of my friends are satisfied to own a website that is nothing more than an online brochure they can hand out that contains their location, describes what they do or offer, and includes their contact information. They want nothing more.

They don’t ask for user personas or care about keyword research because they don’t rely on their websites for conducting business.  These people work out in the real world, conducting workshops and classes and events where they have one on one personal contact with their clients and customers. Their “user research” is done in person and they can meet needs simply by being present and attentive in person.

Therefore, what Bill Slawksi said is a gem. He is telling us that a search engine is studying us not only by watching our every click, but how we interact and respond to people during our everyday activities. We are empathetic beings. We feel. We react. We think. We process every thought and emotion differently. We are biased. We are curious. We are disabled. We are older. We are stressed, tired or medicated. We are unpredictable. That’s your target market.

They are more than a spreadsheet of keywords.

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