27 Jun 2014

Why Usability Matters to Search Engine Marketing

What came first, a website or a user friendly website?  If a website falls in the forest, does it make a sound?

Most people reading this have never seen what websites looked like in the early to mid-1990.  In those days, web pages were like black and white TV shows, devoid of color and flat as a cutting board.  The background colors were universally grey.  Images did not have transparent backgrounds, so if you placed an image on the page, that was how you got color on top of the grey background.  Reading black text against a grey background was difficult because of the poor color contrast.

About three minutes later, in web design-time, HTML improved to include background colors, about four font choices and tables to help place content.  Images could be hyperlinked to pages by creating image maps.  Designs could be more creative as designers experimented with tables and nested tables for placement of images and text.  The distance between objects was created by cell padding and cell spacing.  Something as simple as adding a border was a 123 step combination ordeal of tables, nested tables, cell spacing and color choices.

First Came the Web Page

Old Amazon siteIt was about all any of us could do to make one web page.  For starters, in those days, the very act of sending a file from your computer to a server took anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour, depending on your modem, where you lived, where the server was located and what the weather was like outside.

You think I’m kidding.

In the 1980’s, like 1984 to be exact, I worked in state’s Capitol for a consulting firm.  One of my jobs was to come in at night, place the phone into the phone modem, and send the day’s new Articles, Amendments and Bills to a database in Philadelphia.  If there was a thunderstorm between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, what was sent looked like this:

To [email protected] be or NQ$^ to _&){T&NBVEQRE and heretofore and therefore R%YHWN HNB.

To me, in 1995, a webpage with a gray background that had content I could see and that made sense after I sent it to a server was a true miracle.

By 1997 I was into animation and creating 3D graphics for the websites I was making for my employer and freelancing.  There was no discussion, ever, about usability or the user experience.  The entire point of having a website was to prove your company was groovy and smarter than everybody else.  Now, in the year 2014, this is still largely true for most website owners.  Having a website is like having the best lawn on your street, or the largest RV in the entire campground, or having lost 60 pounds in a year.  It is something to show off.  It lets you boast your existence and helps you stand out from the crowd.

Next Came Search Engines

Old Yahoo Site
Search engines appeared almost immediately as soon as web pages were born.  Before search engines, there were chat rooms and email distribution lists that people on the Internet used to find information.  Everything was referral based.

I repeat. The way to find information at the dawn of the Internet was by recommendations and referrals by people who read the information first.

If you are a search engine marketer, this should send a secret signal to your cells and entire Being because it is the basic core algorithm for all search engines that still exists today.  It is why I keep saying that search engines want to know what people like.

People do not like badly made web sites with poorly presented, inaccurate information.  They will not refer them. People do not like web pages that present a merry-go-round of obstacles and distractions that prevent them from doing that thing they came to do. They don’t recommend bad user experiences to their friends.

If a website falls in the forest, does it make a sound?  The answer is yes, if it is loved by people and has ranked well in search engines because of this loyalty.  If Amazon were to suddenly call it quits, the forest would be squealing with each line of evaporating code.

Search engines changed the way web sites were designed because suddenly people were looking for them in ways outside AOL groups, Deja News and Usenet.  From the 1990’s to around 2010, there was competition between how web pages were coded too.  For a time, the babe was Cold Fusion, and for a time it was .asp.  I spent years working on MIVA developed applications when nobody had heard of MIVA.  When server side includes were invented, it was real relief until suddenly .PHP was simply how all design was done.  Tables were buried and replaced with CSS and CSS3. HTML advanced to HTML5. Animation, meanwhile, and 3D graphics, which I had loved to make, were tossed aside because they took too long to load and this crazy thing called usability became important.

Usability and User Experience Design Are Cousins

The past 20 years have been a crazy ride for anyone who makes websites.  Add to this programmers who make software applications like shopping carts, forms, surveys and creative ways to automate stuff we do on the Web, and you have an entire new area of technology, with careers and jobs.  As the hardware improves, we all must adjust to things like smaller screens and voice activation.

What does this mean to you?  It means you must understand what people do on websites from all the devices they use to access them.

Some of this knowledge has been gathered up into what is referred to as usability heuristics.  There are now several thousand usability heuristics, of which most companies heed about 20 total.  When a website performs poorly, they may hire a usability expert to figure out what happened to other 1980 web design actions they were supposed to take to make their website work for everyone.

User experience is always the very last possible item on anyone’s mind because it is something that requires information they don’t have or are willing to get.  When was the last time you saw a website that has a user feedback form for people to use if they have an issue with a website?  In the 1990’s, most web sites had a form link in their footer to contact the webmaster in case there was an issue with the site.

User experience means knowing who your visitors are, what they want, how they want it, why they want it, and where they want it.  It means building a web site that meets their expectations.  Usability is the way shower for how to improve web site user experience.  The data collected by the usability and human factors industry is based on user testing, neuroscience, information architecture research, search query behavior, eye tracking studies, click through data, cognitive walkthrough and other testing including functional and case studies.

Why Usability Matters to Internet Marketing

I recently read an article about landing pages and conversions lift and I could not get through the article because it was written in the format of a sales pitch.  This meant the article had very large headings, small chunks of content with videos and images nestled in them that required me to stop reading to look at them, followed by teaser, big headings, more images, more content about nothing and I gave up trying to find the part where they could prove there was a conversions lift.

I am an impatient user. I do not want to think.

Old Linkedin SiteEvery conversions lift claim is unique and has to be tested again by your specific set of user personas, customer needs, and target visitor requirements.  If you choose a design based on how a competitor’s web site looks and you create an entire Internet marketing strategy based on that other site’s content and layout, you are ignoring your specific site requirements, demographics, and user preferences.

I recently posted on Facebook my refusal to share an article from Forbes that a friend recommended becasue when I went to see why it was recommended, first I had to “skip the ad” or watch the video ad on the first page, and next, click off two additional banner ads covering up the content of the article. Clearly, Forbes does not want anybody to see or read their content. They do, however, want ad clicks. And for that, I refused to share their article.

Web design and the technology behind it will continue to change, and quickly.  Not every change is accepted by your web site visitors.  They will not return to your website, or recommend it, if you ignore them and their needs.

It is that simple.

Special thanks to Web Originals and their other page with more old time screen shots here.



  1. Mike H February 13, 2015 at 9:07 AM

    Oh I so agree with your comment on Forbes and click ads, etc…Nothing turns me off faster then having to jump thru hoops to see what I came for.

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