An empty desk for thinking

Empathy for the Searcher

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.