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SEO and Usability: Ain’t Nothin’ Like a House Party…Or Is it?

Consider this…you’re invited to a house party.  You’re not doing anything Saturday night except for feeding the cat, spending inordinate amounts of time watering the crops on FarmVille, and watching SNL.  So you think “Sure, why not?”  You print out directions from Google Maps and head out.

While on the road you find the directions to be downright criminal.  You’re heading east when you should be heading west.  And that “easy left” is actually a U-Turn.  The signs on the road read things like “Do Not Enter” and “No Parking Mon – Fri 6am – 6pm.”  Your cell phone can’t pick up a signal because you chose not to follow your Mom’s advice and go with Verizon (Oh, I said it.  I said it).  Through it all you somehow make it to the house party and start swearing up a storm like it’s your lucky day.

You make it to the doorsteps and walk in feeling like that song from the Black Eyed Peas, “Tonight’s Gonna Be a Good Night…”  As you step foot into what should be an otherwise routine get-together of hard working John and Jane Americans, you notice a bathroom stall parked in the living room, or what looks to be the living room.  Looking right, you notice a vegetable garden where the family room should reside growing potatoes, okra and something purple that resembles an onion.  Could be a radish.

As you continue your walk around the house you notice all sorts of happenstance.  The wine cellar is on the roof, a bubbling spa set at 95 degrees is protruding from the tile in the kitchen, the living room couches are getting sprayed by the 9 o’clock sprinklers outside, and the bar you wanted to visit from the first time you walked in is actually the valet ticketing booth.  The guys parking the cars are pulling double duty as bartenders and valets.  Serving drinks and driving.  Carrying keys in one hand and a bottle of Macallan 18 in the other.

Now consider this…what if the story you just read through was a re-enactment of how people use the Internet every day?  Users are constantly hunting, searching, reading, discussing, chatting, posting, navigating, and lurking (had to make sure the creepy guys were called out).  These are all similar tasks.  Just a different environment.  Their misguided adventures take them to places they never thought they’d see, read signs they’d never thought they would read, and visit websites they thought they’d never visit.  These visitors have no specific direction.  They follow their instincts.  They read what others have to say.  Take recommendations from complete strangers.  Or roll the dice and click on links they shouldn’t be clicking on.  It’s really a gamble when you think about it.  Billions of websites, blogs, tweets, message boards, and forums.  Users will never finish sifting through it all.

Let’s not forget about the human vs. website relationship either.  Users have patterns and behaviors that they follow, both learned conventions and natural instincts.  And as they rely on their experience to interact with websites they are often confused by the architecture, the messaging, the labels, the pictures, and the content.  It’s up to the administrators of the web to engineer an experience that is pleasurable and engaging.  For example if a user visits the Products section hoping to see technical specifications, testimonials and case studies but is treated to a gallery of photos from last year’s company conference featuring the owner’s son auditioning to be the 7th member of the JabbaWockeeZ, it can be frustrating and confusing.  Or maybe the user just wants to apply for a job by sending his resume through your Careers section and is unable to do so because the 21 fields he had to fill out about his past addresses, previous jobs, and questions like “Please explain to us, in 500 words or less, why you feel you are the best person for this job” does not submit.  It just clears the form and asks you to enter your telephone number without hyphens. Starting this painstaking process all over again could be a daunting task.  The human-website interaction and the hunt-search are equally important.

So how can you hope to attract and engage an audience in all this noise?

It isn’t going to be easy, but there are ways.  You need to increase the findability of your website while architecting an experience that meets the user’s expectations.  These are the areas we need to solve for.  It is essential to give out the correct directions to the party and then making sure the party-experience is on par or better than what they were expecting.

To address the first problem we’ll need to understand the basic premise of findability.

Just how many people use Google?  Hold them hands up higher… I want to see everyone raise their hands.  Okay, now that we’ve cleared that up we’ll need to address how a website can effectively “rank.”  If you’re familiar with any of the search engine optimization techniques employed, then you know there is hope.  Hope to rank higher than the competition.  Hope to be on the first page.  Hope to target the relevant traffic your online business needs in order for your offline business to succeed.  It’s optimizing your business for search engines so they’re attracting the type of user you want to do business with.  This attraction can be done through images, video, PDFs, tweets, HTML, and reviews (and probably another dozen examples I’m not listing).

Once a user has found your website through a series of directions and clues, they’re going to want to come in and take a look.

To address the second problem we’ll need to recognize user expectations.

Just how many people use Microsoft?  I didn’t say like Microsoft, I just said use it.  Well you should know that in recent years Microsoft has spent millions billions of dollars on research, testing, and improving the usability of their products suite.  And this doesn’t happen once a year.  This is happening daily.  Hourly.  They’re looking to refine and deliver an experience that is useful and personal.  Robust yet simple.  Effortless and in-depth.  Have you ever thought about moving the internal search box exclusively to the footer?  Or placing your primary calls to action at the bottom of the page?  You wouldn’t give it a second thought because no one would be looking for it there.  It defies best practices.  You’re looking to promote a good experience not create a negative one.

Once you’ve been able to gain the trust of the user through a series of clicks, successful engagement points, and laughter (don’t need the laughter but it helps), you will have earned the trust of the user.   Because isn’t that what this is about?  Transforming personal relationships into business leads which become long term partnerships?

Can you see the story I’m trying to tell here?

We’ve now found ourselves at the intersection of Search Engine Optimization and User Experience.  Just having the directions to the party isn’t enough.  Just having a neatly kept house ready for the party wagon to visit won’t cut it.  The user needs to be given accurate directions to the house party and then be able to successfully maneuver within the house.  These two disciplines leveraged in tandem. Working together as a team.