Balancing Search Marketing & User Experience: Why Bother?

Yesterday a colleague asked me to find information on software application response times. I responded with some qualifying questions to refine my assistance but what it boiled down was this: the corporate powers wanted to know how much they could fudge things so that an ecommerce software application could roll out into “production” even though it wasn’t ready to effectively respond to customers. Could this be a problem and if yes, who says so?

Selling Customer Experience

Most online marketers focus on getting web site pages crawled, indexed and ranked high in search engines. If you do social media marketing, add word of mouth marketing, links, social media chatter and server-busting traffic to your marketing strategy. If you represent my colleague’s company, you have it easy. This company uses famous people in their TV and radio ads. You see the company in magazines. It’s already famous by brand name alone.

But are they known and respected for selling products people like? Have they sold the need for their products? Are they going to survive for years because customers can purchase their products online with ease? How much input do you have, as their search engine marketer, in matters of customer experience, usability and persuasive design? Is your company skilled enough to do this?

Requirements gathering

Generally, a company with expertise and the right people will begin a project with a Requirements Document. It includes business requirements for either a website for an online business or an application such as forms or shopping carts. It may include functional requirements, so that the back-end can be figured out in detail. When I do requirements documentation and traceability analysis, I add areas that are rarely considered. They include:

  • Search engine requirements – for search marketing, social media, links, PPC
  • User interface requirements – design, user experience, persuasive design, web standards
  • Accessibility requirements – define and meet legal obligations
  • Content requirements – for marketing content, product descriptions, legal
picture of boardroom
Long term success begins from the start of planning your web project.

As you can see, it takes a village to raise an online presence and keep visitors interested enough to keep coming back. In the past there has been an increase in understanding by some Internet marketers that usability and user experience should be part of their services. They may propose to their client the idea that for their marketing efforts to really “stick”, the web site must look nice and be easy to use. This is a good start, but it’s only step one. There are thousands of attractive web sites that don’t convert. They don’t make a good first impression. They’re forgettable. In many cases, they’re broken and their owners aren’t even aware of it.

Landing on Mars

As someone who started out in SEO before switching over to usability consulting, I giggled when I saw a discussion in a user experience discussion about landing pages. Somebody wanted to know what they are. Of course, as Internet marketers, you already know. Many of you are hired to painstakingly design them and write compelling content for both search engines and site visitors. I thought the discussion was a good sign that the two industries, user experience and usability, and search engine optimization and marketing, were landing on each others’ planet. They share common concerns.

Credibility is one of them. Without credibility, its unlikely visitors will want to stay on a website even if it appeared in the top 10 search results in a search engine. The requirements for credibility heuristics alone can run in the hundreds. Credibility encompasses trust, authenticity, believability, understandability and confidence. Therefore, say a Netshops store comes up high in search for jewelry boxes; the brand alone may pass the first test. But after someone clicks into a web page, what is expected to happen? What does your marketing client want? Are they happy for the clicks or do they want somebody to DO something on the site? If they can do something with ease, has the site convinced them to come again? Were they persuaded to refer it to a friend? Bookmark it? Blog about it? Twitter it? Sign up for a newsletter?

Motivation is another area that designers are still experimenting with. Human Factors studies are a constant resource for understanding consumer actions and human behavior. There are people like me who are fascinated by how computers have become extensions of our bodies. Mobile phone design can’t keep up with us because the more we use them to communicate, listen to music or access the Internet, the more we rely on them. The more we rely on them, the more we start demanding better ways of doing so. Those companies with online businesses who are not paying attention to evolving human needs will not survive in the long run unless they consider adding another new requirement: mobile devices.

Pro-Choice

If you’re truly interested in search behavior, user experience or persuasive design and want to enhance your understanding and skill sets to better serve your clients, there are fascinating studies to explore. One of my all time favorites is from years back when Jared Spool (http://www.uie.com/) ran some tests on photos for shoe web sites to see which images converted better. Only one picture was a clear winner, and it was a picture that showed the bottom of the shoe to show to the tread. Since that was something customers cared about and needed to see, the smart design choice was to offer various views of the shoe to include those selling points.

There’s more research into how to offer choices online to help customers make good decisions. The “contrast principle,” for example, is where two similar but different choices, with two different prices are presented. As expected, the lower price converts better when the products are similar. Adding a third choice changes the outcome and often for better financial gain. (For more information, try “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Airely.)

When creating landing pages, have you stopped to consider what helps visitors make the decisions you hope they will make? Who is coming to the page and what information are they weighing? Are they bargain hunting? Are they able to read the page? Do they have enough prior education to make good choices on your products?

An example from real life may help you visualize the contrast principle. During dinner at a restaurant, my husband and I were offered the opportunity to buy a glass of wine, order a bottle of wine or try a selection of wine for $10, where we could sample from 5 different choices. We chose to sample them. We were allowed to finish all five glasses of wine and offered a choice of purchasing a bottle if we wanted to. We chose a bottle based on how good it tasted, rather than price, because we were so blown away by a particular German wine. And, the next time we went to dinner at that same restaurant, we skipped the single glass or sampling routine and went ahead and ordered the bottle of wine, which was the more expensive choice. Of course, this is exactly the desired reaction by the restaurant. Wine tasting at wineries is no accident!

I wrote about the Extended Brain, computers and human behavior. Science is discovering what some call the “spiritual brain”, and some sciences are researching the differences between how each gender responds to computers. Of course, we already have niche areas such as marketing to women, which requires understanding female brains and behavior.

Our dependency on computers has led young people to develop a love of big band, jazz, classical rock and roll and 80’s songs thanks to Rock Band and Guitar Hero video games. We’re using Wii to exercise, sing and do yoga. Understanding and meeting user needs makes those games popular. Creating a dependency for something or inventing a need we didn’t even know we had, makes the study of human behavior and technology quite intriguing. My son plays Rock Band with his friends in town via an Internet connection and speaker cell phones. They don’t have to be in the same house to jam or talk to each other.

How we respond to computer information doesn’t begin and end with a good user interface. How visitors search and find web sites doesn’t end with the marketing process or how search engines present search results.

These are layers in a computer user’s experience process that we’re just beginning to understand.

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This article was originally written by Kim Berg and published by Search Engine Land, February 27, 2009

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