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.

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

Blended Usability and SEO Practices a Hit

Just when I was seriously considering not writing articles for other publications for awhile, something happened. I wrote an article that poured out in one take for Search Engine Land’s newly renamed “Search and Usability” column and delivered it way past my deadline. Turns out, it was a hit.

I’d been pondering lately how hard it can be to describe what online marketers and web site designers and developers do for a living. Ask 10 of us what we do and you’ll get 10 different answers. It gets even more complicated if you run into someone who is cross trained or specializes in combinations of skills from the marketing and user centered design camps. Way complicated.

What came tumbling out under pressure last week is Why Blending Usability & SEO Really Matters. At my last check, it had been Tweeted 716 times. I think that’s a record for anything I’ve written for SEL. Or anywhere.

The comments and social signals indicate the article has been making rounds. There is much more acceptance of holistic SEO and UX practices today than ever. It’s been my lead topic of writing for 15 years and basis for all of my work. While I continue to see and experience evidence of severe ignorance by companies about making the user experience vital, I’m encouraged that the movement to unite SEO and UX is not only out there, but kicking ass.

We all benefit from this.

Top Ten Must Have Books on Usability and Search Engine Optimization

The only that pours slower than molasses is universal acceptance of how well search engine marketing and user experience design work together. How long have I been writing here on the topic? Eleven years. Five people actually get it.

Interest in the Usability and SEO combo is growing but mostly from the search engine marketing camp. Some of the more famous of my friends in the SEO industry have been including usability audits with their services for years. A few won’t even take on new marketing clients until their web site passes a usability review and repairs are made first. Why? Because promoting a web site that doesn’t work is a waste of time and money. While there’s always SEO companies that have no interest in usable web sites and take money in whatever way they can steal get it from unsuspecting people, there are others who take pride in their work.

Books

The Best Usability and SEO books to Own

Why are Usability and SEO so valuable together? Because both camps want to deliver their target users the object of their desire. Each niche has its own techniques and forms of delivery. Search engine marketers focus on promoting clients’ products and services. They’re paid to promote and if they’re any good, their landing pages immediately deliver on the promise of taking their visitor to whatever they promised. User experience design branches out into all things human oriented. Not only do they create designs that deliver visitors to their desired task, but they persuade them to stick around and do something else while they’re there. The usability camp is mortified if someone’s needs and desires aren’t met. Search engine marketers are less concerned about that, but they should be!

There are many books on search engine marketing.  Usability and usability testing books have been around for years, with Jakob Nielsen being the most popular, followed by Jared Spool. Understanding the theory and practices behind a unified Usability and SEO approach can be found in the 10 books below. Each one deserves a home on your bookshelf.

1. Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become

2. Search Engine Visibility (2nd Edition)

3. When Search Meets Web Usability

4. Call to Action: Secret Formulas to Improve Online Results

5. Always Be Testing: The Complete Guide to Google Website Optimizer

6. Designing Search: UX Strategies for eCommerce Success – – This book is new and I love it!

7. Audience, Relevance, and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content

8. Landing Page Optimization: The Definitive Guide to Testing and Tuning for Conversions

9. Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click?

10. Internet Marketing: An Hour a Day

The Have’s and Have-Not’s Fight in the SEO Industry

Recently I received an email by a company pitching their new product. I get these nearly every day. Sometimes they arrive specifically to me and address me by name. The one that came the other day was quite different.

The email came addressed to 51 people in the SEO industry, each one of them assigned a number. The email began, “Dear SEO Consultants”. I recognized most of the names on the list by their email addresses. The content regarded an RFP on how they could advertise their “concept” software on our web site properties. One of the ways I know that nobody researched me before emailing something like this is they don’t specify which web site they’re referring to. I own several, plus a global forum and don’t put ads on most of them. I determined my personal value to the company was of no importance. I wasn’t interested in their offer and stuck the email in the trash.

I receive “can you look at” and “would you consider” emails nearly every day. I’m more likely to respond if they are presented professionally, in much the same way job seekers are expected to present their resume and letter of introduction. There are expectations by those of us who receive inquiries, especially unsolicited ones, that require our taking time out of the day to review and respond to.

One of the recipients on the list was shocked at how unprofessional it was to send out an email that included patent information, password access to their company’s application and seeking capitol investors. The company claimed to have 10 years experience with the Internet and technology. We each should have been given the respect of being contacted on an individual basis. Since this did not occur, someone replied with an angry message to the company and CC’d everyone on it.

What ensued after that was a rollicking back and forth of some hilarious banter between 50% of the recipients of the original email. The writer of the email that contacted everyone WAS NOT COPIED IN ON THOSE EMAILS. They had no idea what was going on. There was no ganging up on the company. What transpired was a funny dialog by folks who got a kick out of being assigned a number and joking about their “rank” on the email list.

The company did respond to the first angry response with another email. This time it was in the form of an apology, and again, carbon copied to 51 SEO’s rather than blind copied. The fault was that “my assistant did it”. Then, the request for a proposal was presented again. A CEO that passes the buck and blame on an employee rather than accepting full responsibility for the goof up was not accepted by everyone. Others on the list didn’t care and never participated in any dialog.

Enter SEOMoz

A blog post was written about what happened. The purpose was to illustrate how NOT to approach any company with a business proposal. Two things went wrong with that post. First, despite disguising the names of the company and sites involved, the original email was published. Secondly, the way it was written up made it sound like all the folks who joked around between each other about the mass email had copied in the company sender. This was interpreted by SEOMoz readers as the A-List ganging up on someone who made a mistake.

Again. The company that made the mistake was not copied into the messages sent between the recipients.

The SEOMoz post, called How Not to Request an SEO Proposal: An Epic Email Fail to 51 Top SEOs turned into a disasterous case of the Have’s in the SEO industry vs. the Have-Nots. It’s ugly and shows, once again, the divide between those who have been in the business since the 90’s and those just starting out.

Jumping to Conclusions

If you read the posts, clearly there are new people who have no idea the history of the SEO industry and who the major contributors are. There are many people besides myself who have supported the SEO industry and never asked for a dime or reward. My forums, Cre8asiteforums, has sponsored conferences, paid for courses for those who couldn’t afford them, purchased books, and volunteered untold thousands of hours teaching from 1998 to the present day at Cre8asiteforums. I personally have given away my services for free or deep discounts.  I gave away the revenue generated at Cre8asiteoforums and put it right back into the SEO industry.  I should not have to bring this up. I should not have to defend myself.

In the SEOMoz thread, when someone stuck up for those who had earned their way to the top, she was shot down. Many people thought the company who approached top SEO’s should have been taken under their wing and taught how to make a professional, business contact. The fact of the matter is, many of us do just that and have been for years. Sometimes we grow tired of being taken advantage of.

I did think about that suggestion but did not address it in that thread because the overall majority of the posters would have rather shot me in the forehead for being one of what they consider “hot shots”. I know they would not do their research into my contributions and hard work in the industry before crunching me up and tossing me into the trashcan.

Take My Shoes

I thought perhaps I might share what it’s like to be well known in the industry, for those who care to listen.  This is what my experience has been like, supporting the SEO industry. I’m more than willing to turn my role over to any “Have-Not” who wishes to take my place.

1. Death threats in the 1990’s for exposing scams. All locks changed on the house and police protection needed for my kids. Schools notified.
2. Lawsuit threats in the 1990’s for exposing scams.
3. Stalking and cyber bullying targeting me.  Documents prepared for attorney and information gathering for police should anything ever happen to me.
4. Reputation attacks by people who have never met me or done business with me.
5. Constant emails from companies and people who want me to check their web sites – for free.
6. Regular email requests to accept ads on my web site properties, but they never specify which one and do not seem to notice I don’t accept ads on my blogs. They want my stats and how much money I can earn them, regardless.
7. Regular requests asking me to try their latest “concept”, software, invention, etc. for free. They do not offer to pay me for my time.
8. Weekly phone calls from prospective clients who are actually trying to get free help rather than pay me for services.
9. I loved this tactic – if I let them put ads on my website, they’ll “submit my site to search engines” for me.

I am known for being very open minded. For example, I was invited to do usability testing for an escort site. The email contacting me was very professionally written and respectful. I replied to it because of the way I was addressed and approached.

It is wrong to believe that the SEO Have’s are unapproachable stuck up snobs. They never have been. I discovered this ages ago when I was working my way up the ladder and trying to make contacts. I was scared to death to email Jill Whalen and as far as I was concerned, Danny Sullivan was like the President of the USA and had bodyguards. I was intimidated by absolutely everyone until I went to SEO conferences and saw firsthand how ridiculously wrong I was.

I don’t buy into the A list vs. D list comparisons. Most of the membership at Cre8asiteforums is everyday folks working in the web development fields. They bring skills from marketing to programming, at all levels of experience. I learn from them as they share their experiences, no matter who they are.

So it is disappointing when that same regard is not afforded to me.

It’s Not Wise to Fool Search Engine Marketers

In 1995, when American Online (AOL) was my ticket to the whole world, I wanted to believe nobody was lying to me. In the groups I had joined to meet others with the same interests, I read every word and assumed every web site I visited was genuine. I was so dumb.

Before long, every possible gizmo and gadget could make you rich, or so it was screamed from every web site owner who swore up and down they were overnight millionaires. As an SEO, I went merrily along optimizing these sites for their owners, knowing darned well they were desperate fools looking for Internet gold. There would be no “black hat” methodology if it were not for the demands of greedy web sites. Site owner desperation makes for a good income for an SEO. Figuring out the next best route out of the competition puzzle can be challenging and not without risk, however. Even the underground SEO knows when to pack up the suitcase of magic juice and move on to the next town.

The same type of site owner who suffers from delusions of grandeur arrive on my usability audit doorstep. This is the one who believes that “pretty equals credible”. This site owner will not back up claims with any proof. They will hire writers trained to bend the story to sound credible, when in fact, the product is not tested.

In my experience, the most push back from my site reviews comes from the credibility section. These sites want sales leads but make no effort to gain trust first. They don’t share who they are or if they do, they’re vague. Some site owners claim to be caring, helpful, supportive and in your corner, but you can’t find their contact information anywhere on their web site. In cases where there are a staff that has customer contact, they refuse to show anyone who those people are.

Stubborn Site Owners

It’s amazing what site owners try to get away with, especially on health sites. They try to make themselves legitimate by pretending to be from the United States. There are so many ways to appear like you are physically somewhere on the Internet. Claims that go unvalidated, tested and documented with case studies are another area for dishonesty. This is evident everywhere and the theory is if people are stupid enough to buy something untested, it’s their fault. These site owners want the site to be handsome and user friendly, even if illegal.

SO?

A few things need to be said here. Firstly, SEO’s bear the brunt of blame for any form of cheating on the Internet. It’s true that some folks come to the industry ready to outwit any search bot that comes their way. It’s like hackers, who thrive on the ability to meddle. The intent is to see how one can flex technology to make something happen a new way, rather than being mean. Even though the result is most often frustrating and destructive down the line, it’s the game that’s the goal.

Secondly, many site owners with money to blow are more than happy to pay the people most willing to lie and cheat on their behalf. The site owner is never blamed. Rather, it is their staff and marketing folks who may take the fall.

As an SEO, web site designer or someone hired to make a web site property a success, we are indeed lied to by those who hire us. It’s never wise to underestimate the Internet industry. When one of them is cheated by a site owner, that site owner is blacklisted. If an SEO is cheating in an ugly way, the peer response can be equally as severe.

Consumers have grown to be very smart. They know what questions to ask and they look for their answers on the web sites they visit. A site that avoids these questions is asking for site abandonment. There’s nothing any SEO or usability consultant can do when a web site owner insists on being dishonest. We do, however, have the right to refuse to work on the site.

And in an odd twist, it turns out that some of the very best sources for honest businesses are the user experience consultants and search marketers themselves. Some of them research site owners and companies before taking them on as a client.

It’s well worth considering top tier companies in the search engine marketing and usability testing industries and invest in hiring them because those companies expect site owners to do what it takes to be successful, or they won’t bother to help at all.