Usability and SEM 101, Part 1

We’ve all heard about usability. It’s synonymous with a “good user experience.”

In this world of the social Internet, institutional control is transitioning into the hands of consumers. They have more control to speak their mind by voting on their preferences and sharing their opinions.

Therefore, we need to better understand their needs and desires and incorporate them into our Web design processes. By doing so, we’ll be able to bridge the gap between setting the right SEM promise and delivering with the expected Web site experience.

What is Usability?

Jakob Nielsen, a master on the subject, defines usability as “a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. The word ‘usability’ also refers to methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process.” He defines five quality components of usability:

  • Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
  • Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
  • Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?
  • Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  • Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

This definition is good because it breaks this complex topic down to its basic components. All search marketers should firmly fix this in their minds. As you contemplate your target audience, plan to incorporate these principles into your SEM campaigns and into your Web site or landing pages.

The Parallel Path of SEO and Usability

Many clients have asked about the technical aspects of SEO and how to achieve high rankings and Web site visibility without any regard to their Web site and how it functions. Many people think they will automatically get the rankings they desire just by applying certain techniques to their site. They don’t understand how closely tied a highly usable site is to SEO.

Consider a highly “usable” Web site that is well thought out and includes clearly defined rich content, relevant headers and tags, and has an easy to follow button and linking structure. Is that not parallel to SEO best practices?

Then, if your site has the content people are looking for, you will likely find people will want to link to that content. This is link building at its finest.

Short of applying a collection of other SEO techniques, you’ve already built a solid SEO foundation. What’s good for the user will also be good for the search engines. Their goal is to also create a great user experience. Delivering visitors to a Web site that carries on that experience will put you in the good graces of search engines.

Usability and Conversion

Search campaigns are simply vehicles to help drive traffic to our Web sites and landing pages. You can spend a considerable amount of time, money, and effort on PPC, social media marketing, and SEO to generate traffic.

Out of that effort you might have a large number of impressions and a high CTR, which is closely associated with a well implemented SEM campaign. However, one of the most important metrics for most organizations is conversion. Just because you have lots of traffic to your Web site doesn’t mean they will convert.

Conversion is the responsibility of your Web site and is closely associated with an excellent user experience. You set the expectation with your SEM campaigns but deliver with your Web experience. Both sides need to be thought out fully and implemented with precision, and both should work together in harmony.

Designing with the User in Mind

Are you in the process of building a new Web site? Or maybe you’re redesigning a site? Let’s look at a simple process I’ve used for more than 10 years with tremendous success that will help you generate a compelling user experience:

  1. Initial user interviews
  2. Wireframes or sitemaps based on user interviews
  3. Clickable prototype
  4. Follow-up user interviews
  5. Visual design treatments
  6. Combine HTML and programming with visual treatments for the finished site

This process can be more involved with complex sites, but the principles are basically the same. Many people start their Web site design project with the fifth step by creating a “look and feel” treatment of the site. Then they get approvals and then start programming the site.

Keep in mind who you’re developing the site for. Is it your boss, the client, or the site visitor? Don’t you think it makes sense to involve the site visitor in the process?

Start off with user interviews and get an understanding of what their interests, needs, and decision making processes are. Then incorporate them into a blueprint or wireframe on paper. You might call this a sitemap.

Then, create an HTML clickable prototype of the blueprint that illustrates the information flow. Don’t embellish with a visual treatment yet. Use simple shapes to represent buttons or other graphics as placeholders.

Next, get back to a sample of your target audience and verify the “usability” or information flow of the prototype is correct. Make any course corrections as necessary. Once this is done, you can start the process of embellishing a visual treatment. Finally, add your visual treatment into your prototype and include other programming elements to complete the site.

A multitude of detail goes into each step, but you should get the general idea — to involve your target audience into the process and incorporate that knowledge into your design. When they visit your site, it will seem like you read their mind and provide a compelling user experience.

It’s more important that a visitor has a great user experience than to have a pretty Web site with gorgeous graphics or lots of Flash. Though many people like to let this drive the site design, many sites that are less than attractive in their design make information easy to find.

Armed with a well designed site that will provide a great user experience, you’re now ready to invite a multitude of traffic to that site with the confidence that you’ll be able to deliver on your SEM campaign expectations.

Related reading

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A guide to implementing Google’s “How-to” schema
How progressive web apps positively impact your SEO
Improving your site's SEO by checking duplicate content