Category Archives: Usability

Usability

Usability: the Google way

With all the recent hype surrounding Google SearchWiki and the ensuing row over whether the changes add or detract from Google’s core search offering, it makes you wander to what extent Google trial this services prior to launch.

In this post on the art of field study, you get an idea into what Google does in the realm of usability (they are not alone given that they have one of the most used interfaces on the planet – check out this early eye-tracking study).

They perform surveys:

It turns out that people are masters of saying one thing and doing another, particularly when it comes to nearly automatic behavior.

They undertake eye-tracking studies:

Notice how methodically the gaze moves from result title to title, occasionally inspecting the snippet text to gain more detail about the result.

And generally spend time with users getting to grips with what they do. The post is thoughtful in that it also considers some of the limitations of usability testing – particularly in the lab scenario.

One of the questions that springs to mind though is what exactly is the link between the usability team and the engineering guys? Just how much teeth do these usability testers have? I’m not advocating that they should have more control of the interface – after all, it’s refreshing that counting in web years, the Google interface has hardly changed in a millenium. The design just hasn’t swung with every whim of the crowd. We need some standards in this life.

Read more about Google’s usability studies

Search Engine Strategies San Jose 2008 Sessions

Google engineers talking openly about the latest challenges in indexing web content. Search marketers getting their heads around building promotions on Twitter.  Lunch networking sessions exploring obscure tips and tricks. This year’s San Jose SES had it all, with a glow-in-the-dark Google Dance to boot.

Although SES hosts events around the globe, the San Jose event has traditionally attracted considerable attention due to its proximity to the campuses of the major search engines. This year was no exception, with a notable presence from Google, Yahoo and to a lesser extent, Microsoft.

Certain trends jumped out at this year’s event, permeating many of the panel presentations.

Universal (blended) search

Over the last year, all the major engines have rolled out different variations of universal search: mixing up the search result pages (SERPs) with video, news, blogs and other content. While each engine has a slightly different approach, the overall affect on search engine optimization (SEO) strategies is the same: you need to concentrate on optimizing more than just web pages. You need to think about creating and optimizing multimedia content, news and other forms of web content.
Relevant sessions:
Universal Search: representatives from each of the engines talk their developments in this space
Semantic search: a distant cousin of universal search, semantic search has similar implications for SEO practitioners

News optimization

The distinction between PR professionals and search engine marketing (SEM) experts is forever blurring. More and more journalists are using news search engines to source and build stories. Companies can take steps to ensure they have maximum visibility in this space. On your own site, there is work you can do to ensure your PR content (often a good source of fresh content) is as optimized for search as possible.
Relevant sessions:
Optimizing for news search: PR professionals and providers of online news wires discuss making the most of your releases

Conversion optimization

In the paid search space, average pay-per-click (PPC) is increasing as more marketers take to this medium. Therefore it’s increasingly necessary to increase efficiency of campaigns, drive up ROI and outperform the competition. Focussing on the traffic delivered by search can really help in this respect. For instance, making your landing pages more attractive to your target audience and improving a registration form can really make a significant difference to campaign performance.
Relevant sessions:
Pay per conversation: creating real engagement with your audience
Storyteller marketing: weaving a story around your information
Post-click marketing: tips for landing page optimization, including segmentation

Social media optimization

Social media is becoming an integral part of our online culture. SEM professionals should be aware of what this means for the way we find information online. Whereas the traditional search engines still remain important, sites like Myspace, Facebook and Twitter have become credible sources of information. In addition, more and more companies are incorporating social media networks into their own sites, which presents its own unique challenges for search.
Relevant sessions:
Facebook, feeds and micro-blogging: the impact of new online technologies on search

I haven’t included mobile search in this list of trends, although there were numerous sessions on this topic. To me this seems less of a trend – more of an entrenched part of the search landscape.

View all sessions from SES San Jose 2008

Post-Click Marketing: Converting Search Engine Traffic

There were many sessions at SES San Jose 2008 on getting more value from SEM traffic and improving the usability of SEM landing pages. Although not so well attended (being the last day of the conference), this session did contain many useful tips and tricks for landing page optimization.

Moderator:
Anna Maria Virzi, Executive Editor, ClickZ

Speakers:
Carrie Hill, Search Engine Watch Expert & Certified Search Engine Marketing & Promotion Account Manager, Blizzard Internet Marketing
Laura Wilson, Senior Manager of Audience Development, New England Journal of Medicine
Scott Brinker, President & Chief Technology Officer, ion interactive
Tom Leung, Senior Business Product Manager, Google

Carrie:

In the eCommerce space, buyers will place emphasis on words that relate to their query. These should be considered trigger words throughout the landing page experience.

Beyond the keyword, make sure the Ad Text is backed up in the copy eg. if you mention ‘free shipping’ in the ad, this should definitely be highlighted on the first page the visitor sees. The ultimate goal is to let the user design their own experience (could we call this Landing Page 2.0 development?)

Laura:

You can often use the landing page as a medium to upsell. You can offer something free upfront, but on the landing page provide an additional link to premium resources.

Make sure you test everything, including any registration process. What you consider intuitive often doesn’t work out, or may not be the ideal path.

Scott:

A key to getting better conversions is creating more landing pages. The more focussed these become, the better will be the results.

Remember that you are attracting lots of different kinds of people. Use meaningful segmentation to find out more about the audience. Scott shows examples where the landing page is purely navigational – with only 2-3 big links that segment the audience towards relevant content. He outlines a number of reasons why 2 clicks are better than 1:

  • Easy engagement – 5 secs on ad and 5 secs on first page
  • Self-identification – easy for people to categorize themselves
  • More focussed content when they drill down (signalling helps create a rich experience)
  • Market research – find out which segments are most popular

Tom:

Following on with the theme of let your users decide what is the optimum content, Tom recommends turning your website into a living lab (what he calls the democratization of web design). He goes so far as to say “the only opinions that matter are the opinions of people who visit your site”.

Another common theme is to concentrate on microconversions – ie. specifying and testing goals at every stage along a process (eg. shopping cart). Whenever you implement a new feature, make sure you don’t hurt your site (eg. the length of a registration form could negatively impact conversion rates).

There are a few basics you should consider upfront. Think whether you are building trust – does the site look legitimate? Also, is it intelligible in a few seconds? Is it simple to go through the conversion process? 

Questions:

Scott: when it comes to implementation, work in a sandbox first – run a small A/B test and then show the reports. Roll out across the organization in this manner.

Tom: don’t run a test shorter than 2 weeks (to eliminate weekly traffic trends) and ideally wait for at least 100 conversions through each channel (if you are segmenting the audience).

Storyteller Marketing – SES

Subtitle: How The Art of Storytelling Matches Up With the Business of Marketing

Stories have been around since the beginning of communication, and there’s a reason: it’s a form of communication that beats all others when it comes to delivering a memorable, motivating, and meaningful message.

This is another session that deals with the popular (and someone thorny) issue of how to handle visitors once they get to your site. In addition, this session also covered how to attract more people through inclusion in Google News (the most popular online news service).

Moderator:
Rebecca Lieb, Contributing Editor, ClickZ

Speakers:
Gary Stein, Director of Strategy, Ammo Marketing
Sally Falkow, President, Expansion Plus Inc.
Larry Lawfer, Founder/President, YourStorys.com

Gary:

People listen to a story and act inefficiently, however there is no denying that stories shape behavior. The best brand marketing builds a story around your brand – it doesn’t just pump out brand messages. (I’m thinking of the story around how Krishna Bharat built Google News after wanting balanced news accounts following the September 11New York bombings).

Apparently, there are only five stories that can be told:

Origin: where did we come from?
Purpose: why are we here? / Vision: where are we going?
Education: teach the crowd, show them something
Ethics: walk the walk
Connection: eg. CEO reaching out to disgruntled blogger

Sally:

In every business there is a story. If you don’t tell it, others will tell your story for you. (I’m not sure this is always such a good thing, given there are always two sides to every tale).

You need to monitor onlline conversations and know what people are saying about you. Listen for the story. It can come from employees, customers, suppliers – anyone within your business’s ecosystem.
But beware: insincerity or fake stories will backfire. You can use tools like BrandsEye or Radian 6 to monitor online reputation.

All creative should be tied to the story and you can amplify the story online.

Spreading the word
Optimized press releases with images will show up in results (news and web now we have more universal search). Multimedia is a useful aid in transmitting your story.

Sally gives the example of Intercontinental Hotels, who have produced low-fi videos talking to most concierges across the road. Concierges have lots of stories and these unscripted videos were produced for around $4k per video.

Think of blogs: these are often picked up by search. As with age-old PR, you have to be consistent. Make sure you carry the story across all channels. However, regardless of the story, product performance and service is the final word. If these are in place, then you can work out your story and let others tell it for you.

Larry:

Starts off presentation with this adage:
Advertising: you say you’re a good date
PR: your mother says you’re a good date
Engagement marketing: your date says you’re a good date

So, how do we move towards engagement marketing?

Words and pictures are a great way to build a story.

The basic rule is to be real:

  • Be authentic
  • Invite involvement
  • Listen, respond, repeat

Pay Per Conversation – SES

What you do with visitors after you get them to your site was a common topic this year.  By improving the site conversation rate for traffic delivered by search can make or break a campaign. In this session, ‘persuation architect’ Bryan Eisenberg teamed up with Brett Crosby, one of the founders of Urchin (now Google Analytics) to explain what you can monitor, tools that can help, and how to act to improve campaign performance.

Speakers:
Bryan Eisenberg, Co-founder, Future Now Inc.
Brett Crosby, Group Manager, Google

Brian:

Pay per conversation
You can think of this as searcher behaviour optimization. The best way to do this is to think of your customer as a toddler, that is someone who is always asking ‘why?’. Your job is to answer this question quickly – unlike a toddler, your audience will only ask this question a few times. The attention span is less than that of your average toddler!

Scent is very important – aside from being like a toddler, searchers are also like beagles. If a searcher scents the right path, then they will continue. If the scent is dropped, they move on. As analytics guru Jared Spool puts it, either you present relevant content or you present links to relevant content.

Think about the relevancy: every hyperlink is a contract. You present the value (by describing the link and what comes next) and the searcher will give up their time to follow the link. But how do we know we are providing what is most relevant? We need to understand the intent – this goes beyond the few keywords used to conduct the search.

Content needs to be optimized for different possibility types (eg. spontaneous people’s interest: top sellers, new releases; humanistics: care about reviews; methodicals: find by genre, competitives: search by actor/title). At this point Bryan showed a few examples using the matrix of different users.

Brett:

You should concentrate on the pages with the most business need. Google Analytics (GA) can help you work out what these are: you can look at which pages get the most visitors and which pages most people enter through.

Landing page analysis
Look at the bounce rate on top landing pages (change the default view to compare metrics against site average)

Leaky funnels: use the funnel analysis to see where people are exiting through the funnel

Site overlay: this report is particularly useful to see which elements are well-positioned/badly-positioned
Internal site search: useful to see what people are searching on, especially when they are lost or ‘off-scent’

Google Website Optimiser: useful for fixing broken pages (this tool was pushed heavily throughout this conference).

For more information, check out Google’s Conversion University

Why usability is the path to failure

Ouch. Just judging by the comment threads on this blog you can see that this really has touched a nerve. You can read Todd Wilkens full visceral post here:

http://www.adaptivepath.com/blog/2007/07/17/why-usability-is-a-path-to-failure/

The basics are this – in art we look for moments of wonder, not that just the mundane prerequisites have been met. A book should be ground-breaking, not just readable. The problem with usability is that it concentrates too heavily on the ‘readable’ at the expense of the ethereal.

This seems to have incurred the wrath of a large sections of the usability crowd.

If asked a month ago, I would have agreed wholeheartedly with Todd. One of the most popular sites in the US has one of the least usable interfaces – I’m thinking of Myspace. Google was also championed as a usability leader, although to my knowledge, when Google began, they did little in the way of a usability study – they just decided to keep things simple. That interface has hardly changed since it’s inception (although now Google does have a more robust usability team). By contrast Yahoo was using usability advice to work in all the myriad apps it wanted to become a portal – an approach which finally cost it, in terms of rankings as a leading search site.

One thing has changed my previous standpoint – the growth of Facebook over Myspace. Although there are key features that separate the two social networking sites, surely one of the factors that has led to Facebook’s rise must be the easy of interface and the way you can quickly create a good looking profile. Let the usability debate flame on…

Testing, testing

One of our marketing managers pointed me to this site:

http://www.marketingexperiments.com/

It’s a journal dedicated to testing marketing campaigns. Interesting stuff for newbies like me. I now know what ‘variable cluster testing’ is, and how it can be useful.

More than that, they seem to have narrowed in on the right questions – such as how can I optimize a free trial offer? Or what’s the best format for landing pages?

Some of their conclusions are not exactly what I would have expected.