Pinky and the Brain, Search Marketing & User Experience Design

When Google went from being just another new search engine to the search engine, I couldn’t stop comparing the company to the cartoon series, Pinky and the Brain. In my mind, the conversation between Larry and Sergey was identical to the two lab mice:

Larry: “Gee Sergey, what do you want to do tonight?”
Sergey: “The same thing we do every night, Larry—try to take over the world.”

For the cartoon, no matter what scheme Brain devised, the world was not his to take. Perhaps it was Bill Gates’ plan to put a computer in every home that stood the best chance of world domination. Steve Jobs and Apple followed up with more computers and added music. You might even say that the music injection was the language the entire world could understand.

Extending ourselves

It occurred to me one day that people like Larry, Sergey, Bill and Steve, and others like them, instinctively understand the human brain. They know that computers aren’t substitutes for our minds, but are extensions because, for starters, we create the machines. Fascination with our brains is everywhere. There are new books on the male brain, female brain, brain after a stroke, spiritual brains and how brains handle memory or heal disease.
Pinky and the Brain
It’s likely no coincidence that around the time Google was launched, an essay called The Extended Mind was published in the journal Analysis by two philosophers, Andy Clark and David Chalmers. They set out to prove that the mind is a system made up of the physical brain and parts of its environment. When your environment is dependent on computers for communication, for example, how does this affect your memory? Does texting with phonetic words mean the eventual loss of grammatically correct writing?

One way to take over the world is to make people dependent on computers for their survival, communication, entertainment and income. I find it no coincidence that Google explores ways to make its search and data an extension of our daily habits. The key theme between Larry, Sergey, Bill and Steve, and others like them is that humans love convenience.

I think user experience web design and Internet marketing success is tied to exactly the same idea.


Another interesting study shows how narrow our awareness is. Two psychologists, Daniel Simmons and Christopher Chabris, showed a video of two groups of students weaving around each other, passing a basketball. Half of them wore white shirts and the other half wore black. They were asked to keep track of how many times the basketball was passed by their team. At one point, a student dressed in a gorilla costume came wandering into the scene. Later, several students said they never saw the gorilla. Their brains regarded this information as extraneous information. (You can view the “basketball” video here.)

We extract only what we need for whatever our task may be. This same lesson can be applied to usability and marketing.

Navigation and memory

Search engines keep changing their user interfaces. This is not intended to drive you crazy. Rather, the companies are keenly aware of human-computer interaction studies and listen to user feedback. One of our many issues with search and web designs is our inability to recall where things are, how we got anywhere and how to handle information overload.

Creatures of habit, we’ve learned where logos are placed and become accustomed to global, supplemental, supportive and breadcrumb navigation. We scan and look for tidbits. We seek out only what we need to complete a task.

Design styles have changed over the years. However, you will still see home pages with 20-plus items listed on the left side navigation. If just one of those choices is the start of a task, a site visitor has started down a certain path. Ask them to recall what the other 19 items are and they can’t tell you because they didn’t want or need all that information. Duplicating that information with image navigation inside the main body aggravates the situation by removing confidence. Which click is the best for the task, the left side link or product image?

Information gathering

We are quickly adapting not only our brains to our laptops, but also our hands and eyes to sorting through and responding to information. New studies are being performed on how our brains seek out new ways to get information. There’s a rearrangement of neurons based on new methods of getting any feedback. This feedback is not just by sight. For us as internet workers, the creation of lists, forms, videos and detailed images contribute to engaging the brains of our targeted readers or market. Consider disabled persons accessing the Internet and those whose handheld devices are an extension of their body.

One area I see missing in ecommerce design is close up shots of craftsmanship in handmade products. A wedding site with models showing different styles of veils will sell better if the model is shown with several head shots and with close ups of the beads, lace, and length. With the time honored custom of shopping for wedding gown and accessories with family, sales online must find ways to emulate the experience of touching material, remembering a design that was like one Grandmother wore at her wedding and trying on head pieces to see how they look on different size women. We have yet to truly emulate physical feedback to our brains in an environment where touch doesn’t exist.

Pinky and Brain were never able to conquer the world, despite being genetically altered so they could speak to humans. Brain’s name is an acronym for “Biological Recombinant Algorithmic Intelligence Nexus”. Will Google become an extension of our brains? As we search for information via the Internet and make purchases online, we’re contributing to a new way of communication. Our brains are adapting to new behaviors. How we market online is attached to our greater perception of ourselves. Think social media and social media marketing, for example.

For a struggling world economy, companies that will succeed will be those who get unstuck from old practices in design and marketing and regard each of us as evolving humans.


This article was originally written by Kim Berg and published by Search Engine Land, January 23, 2009

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.


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 ( 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.


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

No Guidance, No Interaction, No Sale: Improving Internet Shopping Usability

A good friend recently told me a story about how a company built a web site that needed user instructions to use it. The only page that was allowed to put a link to those instructions was the homepage. Therefore, should a visitor arrive via a search engine to a landing page within the web site, they were out of luck. No guidance, no interaction, no sale.

Missing user instructions

Does your user interface lead nowhere?

I went Christmas shopping online for a computer armoire. I knew exactly what I wanted because I had done previous research on the manufacturer and pricing. The specific piece I wanted was sold out on every top brand department store that had advertised a low price for the item.

Next, I searched in Google for the item by brand name and product description. My expectation was that the company that makes the computer armoire would come up and Google would show me the actual product pages itself so I could get right to it. I was wrong. The manufacturer’s website not only didn’t appear in the natural search results, it also didn’t show up in any paid placement areas of the search results page. How odd for a name brand company not to have their own website rank well, I thought.

Google presented me with all the major department stores that sold the computer armoire that I had already spent an hour checking that were all dead ends. So, thinking this was strange, I searched directly by the name of the company who makes the furniture item I wanted to buy. Perhaps they still had some in stock.

No such luck! They don’t sell their own products! All their web site does is let you search for stores that do. I entered my zip code and their search results brought back no results. However, I already own this piece of furniture. I bought it down the road. I would have done so again, but they were sold out. Not only does this furniture company not sell their own merchandise, they don’t do any promotion of their resellers. There is no time savings device to take potential customers to any reseller who may still have the item in stock. This was a complete dead end. In the days of personalization and communication, this is unacceptable.

Rather than give up, I searched Google with the exact product number and manufacturer as my search phrase. My expectation was that someone, somewhere on the planet, must have this piece of furniture for sale. I was even willing to pay a higher price if someone could prove they had one in stock. I would even DRIVE to pick it up if it was at a store nearby.

Google brought up many excellent search results for me. It didn’t take me long to realize they were all distributors of this particular piece of furniture. I was delighted to discover the first site I visited had what I wanted. Or did they?

They couldn’t tell me whether or not it was in stock. Taking a chance, I began to go down the purchase path to order it. It allowed me to proceed as a “guest”. I was able to add the product to a shopping cart. However, it never told me if they had it. Since everyone else was sold out, I didn’t feel confident they had the item in stock either. I got as far as the address and billing phase, but stopped because not only did I not know if they had the item, they weren’t about to inform me if it would arrive before Christmas or could be expedited to do so. When I looked around for other clues, I realized there was no log in area for customers, no way to track orders and no payment method offered ahead of time. There was no indication whatsoever they even knew I was there trying to place an order. This is because there were no user instructions, no welcoming content, no confirmation of data received and no online presence that anyone was behind the curtain.

I left that site and tried 4 others. In each case, it was a distributor. In every single case, they used the same third party shopping cart process, suggesting to me that the manufacturer supplies it to their resellers. Not a single one of these resellers could tell me if the product would or could be delivered by Christmas, was in stock or could be tracked. I never bought the item. For the major department stores that did sell the item, they never established whether or not they would re-stock the item. There was no way for me to be notified if they did. So here I am. A customer shopping online, prepared with money and the exact item I want, and I’m unable to buy it from the manufacturer themselves or any of their resellers.

What Are Some Lessons Here?

  1. Searchers are smart. They do their research before searching and will search by exact product descriptions, model numbers, manufacturer, brand name, and even down to exact measurements and other specifications. Make sure your web site is optimized accordingly.
  2. If you offer any third party application, be it a shopping cart or travel reservations, you MUST test it to be sure it works functionally and is designed to sell. Just because a manufacturer gives you a free cart in no way means they gave you one that will earn you revenue.
  3. If your order process shows an “Out of Stock” message, and you want the customer to return again or have any faith in your business whatsoever, show them how to find out when it will be re-stocked. If any of these stores would have re-stocked in a week, I still could have ordered and picked it up at a nearby physical store in time for Christmas.
  4. No guidance, no interaction, no sale.
  5. Remember your target market and especially the “Last minute holiday shopper” user persona.
  6. Don’t rely on resellers to sell for you if you don’t support them with usable applications and a well ranked web site of your own.

I did have good experiences with NetShops and Amazon. I’ll return to them again because they made purchasing online a pleasure and hassle free. And, they were prepared for last minute holiday shoppers like me with ship date deadlines, last minute crunch time specials and alternatives to out of stock items.

In other words, they knew I was coming and they were ready for me. That’s the best usability lesson of all.


This article was originally written by Kim Berg and published by Search Engine Land, January 2, 2009

You Had Me At the Search Engines

You’ve likely heard of the movie, Jerry Maguire, with its famous line, “You had me at hello.” Jerry Maguire was luckier than web sites we find in search engines. Many web sites don’t attract user devotion at the first word, let alone after scanning the home page.

How many times has this scenario happened to you? You’ve performed a search in a search engine or directory, reviewed the results and found a page description that fits what you were looking for. When you click on the page that looks the most promising, usually you arrive at the web site’s home page, where one or more things might happen:

1. The page loads slowly due to too many graphics, dynamic applications or scripts

2. There are terms used on the page that you don’t understand.

3. It promotes products or services that were not mentioned in the page description from the search engine.

4. The products or services are unrelated to what you searched for.

5. The page is “amateurish” in appearance and you’re not feeling confident about things like customer service, user privacy and security, experience with the product, or other credibility issues.

6. The page is so busy you don’t know where to go to next, or distractions caused you to forget your original mission.

7. Something has turned you off, such as swimsuit models that don’t look like you do, corporate images of businessmen, not women, or multiple animated things.

8. An invasive advertisement appeared that you had to click away so you could read the content underneath it.

9. The page loads but your scum ware radar starts beeping like crazy or popup and security alerts appear.

10. You need a magnifying glass to read the content.

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Blog Usability – How to Reach Your Blogging Happy Place

Congratulations! You’re a blog owner. It has a catchy name. After submitting a blog post, you’re amazed at the inbound traffic. The ads in your sidebar are paying your mortgage. People recognize you on the street as that “Cool Blogger”. Next year, you’ll retire to some tropical island because your blog success is like winning the lottery. Or not.

A focus on the usability of your blog can help create a happy picture much like the one you’ve just read. First, let’s begin with the vision for your blog.


What is the purpose of your blog? The ease and availability of blog software has made blogging an option for nearly every type of web site. You can entertain. Inform. Sell products. Offer opinions. Market your company. Perhaps you simply want to write from your heart and your personal blog is your journal.

What is the value of your blog to your readers? Are you writing for yourself, your industry, your business, or company? Sometimes blogs are so well written that readers become fans even if the topic raises eyebrows. One of the best written blogs I ever found was filled with hilarious stories by a male escort.

Will your blog benefit readers? If your blog is part of a resorts web site, do you offer personal reviews of properties that your readers can use to help them choose where to go? If you operate a news blog, do you check facts, go by press releases or have investigative blog reporters on your staff?

Who is your target market? If you’re an artist with a blog, you may hope to inspire someone to purchase your artwork. Perhaps you want to convince them that your next show is worth attending. What writing style can you use for art lovers looking to purchase good works of art? When blogging industry news, do you write in simple terms or use technical jargon? Who will be reading your blog? Professionals? Peers? Strangers? Friends? Customers?

There may be related goals such as “to teach”, “inform and sell my book”, “news and a bit of personal life”, etc. When you wish to combine topics, communicate your objectives to your readers in your blog description or About page. Attempts to hide your true purpose or “fake out” readers may injure the credibility of your blog.

Blog visitors determine the usability and purpose of your blog based on the layout and content. When considering your target readers, consider demographic information such as age, gender, computer experience, geographic location and education.

Requirements Gathering

By now, it may have suddenly occurred to you that your blog isn’t just for you. Gathering requirements is an exercise in organization and better planning for your blog. Try to do this before you spend hours searching for the perfect blog template. The end result is better overall usability because of your close attention to small details and greater understanding of what you want to create.
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