Empathy for the Searcher

Empathy for the Searcher

Kim Krause Berg  

The holistic approach is a simple concept. It says to us, “Create, develop and market with empathy for all people.”

The heavens opened to me several months into my new position as a software QA usability engineer after overhearing a salesman marketing a project I knew was a wreck.

It was a website I was assigned to help design, but my usability recommendations were ignored. By the time it entered the development phase, I was chosen for a newly formed software QA team that needed a usability person. My duty was to prove it was defective, failed UX standards and missed the business requirements. That I was on the shit-list of the marketing department would be something I needed to learn to live with since I also moonlighted as a consultant and advisor in the art and science of search engine optimization.

I Was That Worthless Webmaster

In 1995 when I veered into my present career path, promoting websites was called “website promotion” and designers were called “webmasters”, or in my case, a “web mistress” (an no, I refused to be anyone’s mistress). Search engines were puzzle boxes with secret keys, and my early jobs were unraveling their mysteries so my employers could get rich. In fact, my first job building and promoting websites was so unappreciated by my company CEO that he insisted “webmasters are only worth $5 an hour!”

Both his company and the one that tried to sell broken software went out of business.

Of course, had they bothered to understand the holistic approach to web based property ownership, they might have survived. Meanwhile, by 2001 I was mentored in Human Factors and teaching anyone that would listen what I called “Holistic UX and SEO” practices. In 2002, I had 5 friends from the SEO industry brave enough to kindly consider the remote possibility that usability practices could improve search engine marketing strategies. Cre8asiteforums, which I founded in 1998 to teach and share on search engine marketing tactics, quietly added a Usability and Accessibility section to the topics for discussion in 2002. It’s still there.

UX and SEO are Beyond the Secret Club for Misfits Stage

Finally. Of those 5 people who drank the UX and SEO Kool-Aid 17 years ago, two are off doing other things these days, two are authors and global speakers, and 1 is a business owner and speaker. When the stars were properly aligned and waving money around got you in the door, search engine marketing conference organizers would permit someone to mention usability in a talk. It was one of those trigger words you just didn’t say out loud in front of marketers. And for the usability camp, SEO was the work of deprived soul’s hell bent determined to destroy pretty user interfaces.

Today, accessibility is the missing link and holistic SEO and UX is now the cool kid on the block. If you accept that marketing and user experience are a united cause, leaving accessibility out of the party means the holistic part remains ignored. It’s not like search engines only work for some people. They are used by everybody.

And everybody that searches wishes to land safely, accurately and quickly at the precise search result for their query.

Holistic UX and SEO is How We Seek Information

Frustrated man
Nowhere in that drama was there ever any thought of the person who wanted to find pineapple pizza without ham within 5 miles from home.

It always has been. One of the funniest quirks about the early online directories was how they sorted website domains. They were alphabetical. That meant that companies wanted their brand or website domain to start with the letter “A” so they would come first in search results. When rank was based on popularity and who you were best buds with, web rings and link farms were created and tools that searched the planet for links and more besties were the marketers’ work horse. When the tools used up every link favor known to mankind, paying for links and clicks was invented. Nowhere in that drama was there ever any thought of the person who wanted to find pineapple pizza without ham within 5 miles from home.

Case Based Searches

Keyword searches and browsing strategies are stalked by analytics and today’s true SEO strategies are technically complicated because they are more, well, technical. It’s worth noting that Google has a usability department. It’s been there for years hiding down one of the long hallways at Headquarters where its humans think about humans who search and when the next volleyball game is outside.

That’s why the holistic approach fascinates me. Because humans are unpredictable and spontaneous, and trying to plan to rank in the top position for a topic for unpredictable people is not something I ever thought was rewarding. Making the landing stick, however, is.

An eight-year research study of a software tool created for educators found that of the three types of ways that their users searched for information, it was the case studies that were the most sought after. Not the keyword matches. Not browsing patterns. They watched how teachers searched for information and what they wanted most were actual stories of experiences, or case based searches. We solve problems by asking for solutions and advice from others.

We learn from each other.

We want to be engaged with the topic.

We look for meaningful experiences.

We return for more, when the experience feels good.

This is what led to conversions marketing practices, persuasive design and customer experience design practices, to name a few. But even with these advances in design strategies matched with marketing analytics that contribute to enhancing user experience, some people remain left out. It may surprise you to learn how many websites are built and promoted without any homework done on who it is intended for.

Trust me when I tell you that information seeking has been studied to death. For years. Every search engine, every directory, every homegrown application with a search program rigged into it has been researched, studied and presented in case studies. How we feel when we search, where are when we search, what devices we use and our birth day all matter to the task of finding something we desire.

Marketers looking for the holy grail of rank and conversions need only to grab a bench and ice cream cone and people watch.

Unpacking the Next Pain Points

City windows at night
We have played in the human behavior sandbox for a few years, but ignoring humans with physical limitations and they are fighting back.

The pain points are still coming and this is what I see that we are not connecting with. The increase in ADA lawsuits is one of the signs pointing to the lack of accessibility for web sites and software. Not only is there a void in skilled accessibility testing and people who write the code needed for WCAG2.1 or Section 508 Refresh, the very fact that some people need devices to use computer devices is alien territory. We have played in the human behavior sandbox for a few years, but ignoring humans with physical limitations and they are fighting back.

The holistic approach is a simple concept. It says to us, “Create, develop and market with empathy for all people.”

No one person has the skills to do it all and I’m aware that companies demand this from their developers, testers and designers who are asked to perform miracles they were never trained in or hired for. It’s a deteriorating situation that’s going to cost companies in the long run because they don’t understand what they are asking for and causing enormous stress on employees that just want to build things that work properly before the sales people try and sell it.

Watch how people search and learn about their preferences. Apply your findings to your specific online property. What works for other companies may not apply to yours. This is one of the most difficult concepts I explain to my clients who demand a web design toy they can’t have.

And finally, remember that people are easily influenced and persuaded. There is as much misinformation as there is factual. One recent study illustrated this by evaluating how well the vaccination movement worked search engines, pro and con, to change opinions. This is the power of marketing. As the study wrote in their conclusion, “The potential for individuals making vaccine decisions to decide not to vaccinate based on misinformation on the web is a real concern and has serious consequences for society.”

Perhaps ethics belongs in the discussion of a holistic approach to usability and SEO, but it’s taken this long for SEO’s to consider user experience as something desirable and it’s largely applied to advanced marketers ready to take their clients sites to greater achievements. It’s far and away more pleasant to promote something people want to use.

And fascinating chaos the ways people search for it.

The Unpredictable Website Visitor and How to Capture Their Attention

The Unpredictable Website Visitor and How to Capture Their Attention

Kim Krause Berg  

Keyword searches and browsing strategies tracked by analytics may be frustrating because searchers can’t be counted on to behave as you want them to.

Humans are unpredictable and spontaneous, and trying to plan to rank in the top position on a topic for unpredictable people is not something I ever thought was rewarding. Making the landing stick, however, is.

An eight-year research study of a software tool created for educators found that of the three types of ways their users searched for information, it was the case studies that were the most sought after. Not the keyword matches. Not browsing patterns. They watched how teachers searched for information and what they wanted most were actual stories of experiences, or case based searches. We solve problems by asking for solutions and advice from others.

  • We learn from each other.
  • We want to be engaged with the topic.
  • We look for meaningful experiences.
  • We return for more, when the experience feels good.

This is what led to conversions marketing practices, persuasive design and customer experience design practices, to name a few. It may surprise you to learn how many websites are built and promoted without any homework done on who it is intended for.

Marketers looking for the holy grail of rank and conversions need only to grab a bench and ice cream cone and people watch. Listen to what they ask their cell phones.

Everybody has a story to tell.

Clothing on a rackYears ago I wrote an article about why ecommerce user experience design was not ready for my daughter and me. It was probably about 15 years ago that I wrote it because she grew up and has her own money now. Back then, my wallet and I went to the local shopping mall with her and I marveled at the experience. The storefronts were enticing, with unique displays. In my mind, I ran that by most ecommerce websites and of course, none of them were anywhere as alluring as the storefronts in the Mall.

Inside each store, every item had a price. The sale items were easy to find and were grouped by size. Even today when I perform site audits, prices are hiding and finding products takes a very long time because of page load times, poor category searches and the inability to put something over your arm and carry it for your daughter until she decides what to keep. Emulating real life is user experience design that rocks.

I wrote about the sales girl behind the counter in one of the shops where my credit card was celebrated with great joy. The young woman was chewing gum, had a short hair cut where every hair was parked in an exact spot on her head. Her long, perfectly manicured painted nails tapped the counter as she folded my daughter’s clothes and placed them inside the bag as if it was a new puppy scared out of its mind. Her makeup was expertly applied, from the bright red lips to eyeliner that curled half way around the side of her face. I adored her.

When we left the store, I marveled at just how FUN that shopping experience was and to this day, no ecommerce shopping has ever come close to it. The shopping malls are closing and future generations will never experience the human experience of  buying a crop top with no back and skinny jeans.

User experience web design that brings joy, laughter, relief or empathy connects with your visitors.  It is the purest and most difficult to achieve secret to conversions.

Keyword Relevance and The Stories They Could Tell Us

Keyword Relevance and The Stories They Could Tell Us

Kim Krause Berg  
Google has figured how to perform remote viewing and knows what I’m doing, while Bing is completely out of touch with reality.

The painstaking work by SEO’s performing keyword research has intrigued me ever since Google came along to kick its competition out of the pool, creating competitive war games for top positions in search engine results.

Unpredictable Search Engine Playbook Changes

It is this search engine playbook that SEO’s grabble with. Copyright ezplayz.com

Have you ever seen a football team’s playbook? Each page has a plan, with arrows, numbers, rules and code names to be memorized by the team. Headphone wearing, yelling Coaches call out the secret names and if all goes according to plan, everyone will remember what to do to get the expected result. If not, there could be a flag on the play and swearing, screaming fans in the stands.

It is this search engine playbook that SEO’s grabble with. It’s reviewed by the marketing team, memorized and practiced and just at the precise moment a web page scores a goal, an algorithm is updated and a new set of rules and plays have to be figured out. After all, the goal of marketing is to win and the prize is revenue.

Google assigns its search engine algorithms names, often after animals that begin with the letter “P”. Every SEO worth their paycheck tracks whatever Google changes or invents next, but what they do less and less of is studying the “P” word I like to think about.

People

People balk at change. This is one of the most basic of user interface design rules ever taught and Google’s weapon of choice against SEO’s. In Google’s defense, it’s not about “getting pages ranked high in search engines”. Their business goal is generating enough revenue to build driver-less cars, buy the Internet and know the blood type and DNA of every human being on the planet.

It didn’t start out that way. Search engine optimization began in the age of innocence, where new tools were tested, results shared, and relationships were formed out of knowledge sharing, whether civil or competitive.

When I was a fully invested SEO in the mid-1990’s, our main tool was WebPosition Gold for keyword research and a few free site submission websites used to get into, if you were to believe the scam artists, 60,000 directories out there. (In those days, challenging fake submission services could bring you threats of death or lawsuits if you asked to see proof of their lists. Ask me how I know that.) New search engines were always popping up, each one with its own set of rules to get in, rank and live there forever.

Memory Lane

· Alta Vista

· Excite

· Lycos

· Infoseek

· Hotbot

· OpenText

· Yahoo! (Both engine and directory)

· Euroseek

· Metacrawler

· Inquirus

· FAST

· EuroFerret

· DirectHit

· Answers

· LookSmart

· C4

· Northern Light

· MSN (Ms. Dewey)

· Ask

· Seekport

· Tacomy

· AlltheWeb

· Magellan

· Snap

· Monster

· Go/Goto

· Others specific by country.

BruceClay Inc. had a colorful diagram of search engines we followed, and my first official website had a text version that described the same search engine playbook rules. I kept track of every submission link, rules for rank and any fees.

There were web rings and link farms and text link miracle tools, black hat cloaking and company bribery behind the scenes to rank higher than the encroaching competition. There were publications written on the mathematical equations behind Google’s algorithm, and a few gigantic books written by such brilliant minds as Mike Grehan, who crawled underneath the belly of internet search engines to teach it to the world.

Eventually nothing mattered except Google, Bing and a few stubborn directories like Ask, DMOZ and Yahoo! You would think the work load would have decreased when the bulk of link purchases, content writing, keyword tracking, PPC, advertising, black hat secret sauces and corporate bribery focused on just two search engines and a few struggling directories.

However, I feel it’s because people are so unique and unpredictable that you, my SEO friends, will keep your jobs. For starters, most everybody chooses to use Google first and it’s not done messing with you yet.

The Uniqueness of Search Query Relevance by People

Researchers have evaluated the search engine retrieval process going back to the 1990’s. There are studies that evaluate the studies that evaluate search engine retrieval processes and to be blunt, they gave up trying to sample SERPS because, well, you try sampling data from the global population and see how much fun that is.

One paper, Evaluating the Retrieval Effectiveness of Web Search Engines Using a Representative Query Sample, compared Google and Bing with 1000 sample search queries for two types of search patterns, informationaland navigational. Informational is what we do the most of. If we search for one or two words from Google, it uses ESP to figure out what we want to find. (I’m kidding.)

I decided to compare Google and Bing on a Sunday when the rest of my area was watching football. The first example is a one-word informational search to see if a search engine could read my mind.

Figure 1 — One word, and I wasn’t searching for the bird or the band. How did Google know I was asking about the football team?

Fig. 1

Figure 2 — Bing, on the other hand, is a chatterbox.

Fig. 2

Asking Questions

We search smarter with voice activated search and we’re getting better at researching, which is why asking questions to machines is now normal. For Google, ever eager to please you, providing the answer through Knowledge Panels is how they show off how smart they are, but for web site owners, this presents a slight concern since there is no reason for anyone to visit websites to get answers if Google is hogging up everything.

Figure 3 — Sorry Eagles football franchise website all the way down there. Google beat you.

Fig. 3

Figure 4 — Bing has less ego and though it provides the answers to the question too, it also presents us with additional resources, logos, social links and the coveted link to the actual franchise website with the words, “Official”. Cool beans.

Fig. 4

Figure 5 — If we continue to scroll, the informational search switches to navigational search by presenting possible pages to navigate to. Google wants to control that too by limiting what we will see.

Fig. 5

Figure 6 — Google generously directs searchers to “Shopping”. As a user experience person, I immediately visualize someone who had tickets for the game but couldn’t go and some kind, caring person decides to purchase a team shirt to cheer them up with. This is more fun than “Maps” because if you live near Philadelphia like I do, you already know it will take 3 hours to go 30 miles into the city.

Fig. 6

Figure 7 — Bing, not so much into the shopping angle.

Fig. 7

Figure 8 — However, if you do decide to shop, Google needs a tad more information to help you buy that shirt. So much for “retrieval effectiveness” for searchers on a mission that goes beyond the realm of the immediate search query results.

Fig. 8

The third way we search is transactional and this is avoided by researchers because they need to buy stuff. But I was curious and went shopping for my obsession.

Both Google and Bing have interesting ways of helping us make purchases.

Figure 9 — Google’s first priority is to get the money from advertisers up front, so searchers are gifted with whatever website had the money to cough up for the coveted top spots. After that the big shots appear at the top, may the best SEO win. In this example, the top search results paid to be there and the images to the right are cousins to the left column, with very little variety.

Fig. 9

Figure 10 — Bing won this round because it presents search results for human’s who want to make informed decisions. The images are in the left column and show a variety of products, even though they are technically paying to be there rather than one item by one manufacturer shown in different colors and angles. Bing doesn’t blast “Hey these are ads!” with the little green icon like Google does, which is perfect for sight impaired, contrast loving people who won’t ever see the little light gray “Ad” and believe those websites genuinely ranked there. As a bonus for Bing, they present alternative searches in the right column.

Fig. 10

Bing’s display just feels a bit less desperate from Google’s.

For most of us, Google always win the battle of the search engines, but Bing is the default search engine for Amazon’s Kindle, and if you are spy or don’t want Google to know about your secret life as an erotic writer in need of specific research, there is Duck Duck Go. Not that I would know anything about that.

Do you agonize over the user experience of people figuring out how to get cell phone voice search assistants to speak with a British accent? If we’re going to perform voice searches, we may as well get a sexy voice delivering the results to us. SEO’s focus on the keywords, but I want to know how searchers react to search results spoken by the sexy husky voiced woman I call, “the girlfriend” or “the butler, Charles”. In a way it’s a shame the general public has no idea that SEO’s are managing keyword bundles and chasing Possum, plus wrapping their heads around AMP, Schema, competitive research and AI on their behalf. It’s because of change that internet marketers and web designers are busier than ever.

Ignoring site performance in search engines or within the user interface translates to revenue loss, low conversion rates, reputation management problems, search engine indexing issues, page abandonment and so much more.

Keywords Are Mysterious Creatures

For anyone who can’t spell or read with ease, a search engine is only as helpful as its auto complete. There is a study on Google, autocomplete functions and dyslexia called, Do Autocomplete Functions Reduce the Impact of Dyslexia on Information-Searching Behavior? SEO’s are always thinking of plurals and related terms for keyword research. They plan for misspelled words that they can predict. To actually know for sure who the users are, where they are and what may be causing the misspelled words is what I think about.

Drunk searching is one. And so is dementia, poor education, hand tremors, poor eyesight, high stress, emotional upset and dyslexia. Below is a comparison between Google and Bing of the same search with a phonetic query.

Figures 11 & 12 — Bing not only has no ESP powers but is thoroughly confused about what the searcher could possibly be thinking. Google is totally Zen.

Fig. 11
Fig. 12

Figures 13 and 14 — Google has figured how to perform remote viewing and knows what I’m doing, while Bing is completely out of touch with reality.

Fig. 14
Fig. 15

Dyslexia is said to affect 3–10% of “any” population points out the study. The outcome of the study on dyslexia focused on the human behavior responses of the searcher rather than how Google’s autocomplete performed.

“Participants with dyslexia made more misspellings and looked less at the screen and the auto complete suggestions lists while entering the queries. The results indicate that although the autocomplete function supported the participants in the search process, a more extensive use of the autocomplete would have reduced misspellings.”

Which brings me to why I encourage keyword research in the wild. The winning ranking word from just keyword research and competitive analysis may be directly tied to someone who simply wants to find something in a universe of human possibilities and distractions that math and bots can’t grasp.

Keyword research in real world situations is a keyword user experience with a story to tell.

Resources:

Berget, G. and Sandnes, F. E. (2016), Do autocomplete functions reduce the impact of dyslexia on information-searching behavior? The case of Google. J Assn Inf Sci Tec, 67: 2320–2328. doi:10.1002/asi.23572

What Does User Experience Mean to SEO’s?

What Does User Experience Mean to SEO’s?

Kim Krause Berg  

When you land on a webpage, what frustrates you? Is it how long it takes to load, ads covering up content, or the visual complexity of the page? The answer depends on who you are, what device you are using and what you need.

If you are to believe search engine marketing experts, the ultimate end goal for all web pages is to rank at the top for users’ search queries.  This is their truth. Page load time is the main goal for user experience. When Google launched its mobile test tool, marketers sounded the alarm because now web pages must render on smart phones to be included in Google’s index. Bing has introduced their own mobile requirements.  Online marketers want content for algorithms, sponsored positions, rank and ads.

Go to search engine marketing conference and look for a talk on how to design for human users. When you return to work,  you will not know how to design for people, but you will know how to design for search engines and use SEO tools.

Not Listening

When I’m asked to conduct a usability and conversions site audit, I now make a request and it goes like this:

“Are you ready to listen”?

TypewriterIt’s my way of destroying my career, yes.

But the fact is, I’m not going to waste my time and your money providing you with solutions that will increase conversions if you are not going to implement them.  The leading reason my recommendations are ignored is because marketers hate them. They insist that ads are not hurting people who came to read or conduct tasks.  They are satisfied with 30% of their traffic calling or filling out a form, even though removing or adjusting the timing of the pop up form covering their content would increase conversions and revenue.  They want ads sliding in from the left and right and covering the bottom part of the screen because people who want to use their site on a smartphone don’t matter. The site passed Google’s mobile test and THAT is their only goal.

A marketer may instruct clients to make the desktop and mobile device experience consistent. This means that pages are continuous rows of 3 or 4 blocks of images, text and links instructed to stack in various ways depending on the screen size. On a smartphone this creates longer pages and the potential of slow load times based on the user’s location in the world. Alternatively, some designers create a large screen layout with bells and whistles and present a severely limited smartphone version that removes parts of the website. The user experience is completely different based on the device. The question is…was a section that people desire removed? And why? Was this to please a search engine? Did your stakeholders say, “Discard what our target users want and design for search engines.”

In my audits, I may suggest relocating a call to action placed before their readers are given enough information to make a decision. I may ask them to adjust content on pages that are intended for use by people who are upset, in a hurry, on medication, in a moving vehicle, using text to voice software or don’t have 20-20 vision. This is in direct opposition to what their marketers want.  They are focused on keywords.

I research how people use websites. Does your online marketer perform user testing with people?  Does your company require user personas, mental models, or requirements gathering focused on people during website or application development?

Companies that allow marketers to dictate web designs are often surprised at the results.  For example, a company hired me to perform a usability and conversions site audit. The result was the decision to redesign the site for mobile, increase conversions and improve the site’s overall performance for people and apply my recommendations from the audit.  I was not part of the new design. After the new site launched, the owner called me, upset at what a heat map what indicating. It showed that users were clicking on the tagline, thinking it was a link. This is because of the way it was formatted and placed in the header. Rather than a sentence with a value statement, it was a series of keywords separated by dashes. There were two other navigation areas as well, so it looked like three sections of links with duplicate words.  People were confused, especially on smartphones where the words appeared near the hamburger menu symbol.

Another example is a site that underwent a massive redesign to meet Google’s mobile test. One of the goals was to not destroy the excellent rankings it already enjoyed, so the new design is an information architecture nightmare of links. I’m not permitted to have a say in these situations so I stick to user behavior instead. I can always show how these sites confuse people and chase them away, and it’s not just by the endless merry go round of links, but the mental and emotional state of the people accessing the pages. If you run a healthcare business, for instance, it helps to understand what it’s like to use your site if your target users are sick, mentally ill, high, drunk, in shock, emotionally scattered or injured.  Their experience with seeking help online is absolutely in no way anywhere near the state of mind of your designer, programmers or marketers.

This is what you will not learn at search engine conferences or online marketing websites. Are you ready to listen?