AEO is one of the latest buzzwords used by digital marketers focused on search engine rank. Answer Engine Optimization (AEO) brings SEO one step closer to usability and accessibility territories.
I was invited to substitute for Marie Hayes, a long time friend in the SEO industry, for a series of webinars out of SEMRush, makers of SEO tools, training and well written educational blog. The topic is AEO for SEO, which would normally not be in my wheelhouse. However, the master mind of the website series, Jason Barnard, in his investigation into AEO, realized that optimization for answers is powerless without adding human elements to the search engine algorithms.
In other words, this is a continuation, if not a robust re-boot, of what I’ve referred to since 2001; Holistic UX and SEO. Seventeen years after I began to practice the holistic approach to my work, plus teach and write about it, there is a renewed fascination for the user intent layer of digital marketing. Despite the simple logic of optimization for people instead of keywords, today’s computer technology and gadgets demand that we pay close attention to why we seek top rank spots and what we must do to not only get to the top of search results queries, but how to fend off the competition.
What sets your brand apart may need to be more than having the answer or solution to a problem. The wins are in the details.
If you have ever used a website and become frustrated with it, you know first hand why a usability site audit is necessary. And, because there are so many websites that are difficult to use, you may not be surprised to learn it was never tested to begin with.
Every website has a short shelf life.
During the 1990’s when website design was in the exploratory stages the common mantra was “build it and they will come”. They did because there was no other place to go and if you were lucky to be the first website, you could get away with imperfections. This is no longer the case.
For the past 20 years web designers, programmers and marketers have watched how people search for and interact with web pages. We learned that everyone wants in. That means making web pages accessible regardless of age, handicap, or device. Competition brought on brand challenges. Where there were once hundreds of thousands of directories and search engines, today Google dominates the search engine space; so much so that when they declared they wanted to index only mobile-ready web pages, everybody ran back to the drawing board for redesigns.
With each new programming language comes new opportunities for developers.
Small businesses with tiny budgets learn the harsh realities of web site ownership in a playing field where companies with more money can pay for better built web sites that rank well in search engines and perform well for their visitors.
It is website performance for people that counts most of all.
We know from years of studies in human factors and neurosciences that when someone arrives at a web page or mobile application, for example, their need must be met in under 5 seconds. The most basic need is “Do they have what I came for?” If that question requires page scrolling, clicking links, browsing menus and searching for content, that experience has to be pain free and effortless.
Companies are sometimes less informed about their target market.
They have a limited perspective, ideas based on hope, and they rarely ever consider human behavior, special needs, country cultural differences, or thought to watch anyone use their website in various environments.
Usability website testing should be set up and ready to go during the development stage and after the site goes live.
It should be part of ongoing maintenance during the life of the website property. There are web design standards and guidelines established by the World Wide Web Consortium that provide unity and cohesiveness for the Internet experience, but those standards are constantly re-visited and revised. In several countries, including the US and UK, there are laws pertaining to doing business online with special needs people. There is a lack of knowledge of what a special needs user is. The definition includes people who wear corrective eye wear, are ADD or ADHD, are colorblind and those who use special computer devices that do not come with a mouse.
Certain countries do not use desktop or lap top computers. Their populations rely on cell phones. Language, terminology and grammar are not universally understood. This makes the role of an information architect vitally important for web design and digital marketing.
A website usability audit should be performed when:
The data indicates traffic declined after a redesign.
The data indicates traffic bounces after landing on the site.
Revenue is not meeting expectations.
Pages rank well but conversions are poor.
There was a redesign and all hell broke loose after that.
The site is a few years old and no longer meeting user or business expectations.
A professional SEO insists that one is needed to provide support for their marketing strategies.
The site was never tested to begin with.
A usability site audit helps to determine the success or failure of the website users’ experience.
You should be concerned if your website is not tested by an expert in the usability field.
Companies are not hiring the right website designers. It takes a team of people to build, test, maintain and promote a website. One person can not do it all, despite every possible attempt by people to do it this way. A graphic designer is not a performance engineer. An SEO is not an accessibility specialist. A user interface designer is not a data analyst. Someone needs to be trained in programming, mobile design, information architecture, human behavior, persuasive design, functional testing and content writing.
The smart website owner leaves nothing to chance. Their investment must be competitive. A usability audit may result in a strong recommendation to redesign the website. An official report with documented findings provides proof and actionable recommendations, mockups, sketches, resources and data to be used for the new design. It may recommend user testing, mobile device testing, accessibility testing, performance testing and search engine optimization enhancements.
What Do I Need in My Website Usability Audit?
A full website audit for a large website may be expensive when performed by trained usability specialists. If a site owner has a good idea where an issue is located, that area can be the focus. Sometimes the audit is to test for mobile user experience only. What is not recommended is when a site has a global target market and an ecommerce section, and the site owner wants under 5 pages audited. Those 5 pages will not represent the performance or user experience of an enterprise website that targets customers from many countries. They can be, however, proof of concept or examples of a larger audit or used for discussions with stakeholders who may need convincing that a full site audit is warranted.
What is The Value of Getting a Website Usability Audit?
Your brand. Your reputation. Sales. Conversions. Search engine rankings. Your customers’ satisfaction. You value those things. It makes sense to do whatever it takes to properly support them.
A website audit and site testing are worth the investment if you want your online business to be successful and risk-free for a long time.
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
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
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.
Google’s announcement that websites must pass its mobile device test has everyone in a panic. However, in the effort to redesign websites to meet this new criteria, user experience is not improving.
In fact, some companies are destroying the usability of their desktop layouts while trying to adapt to Responsive design specifications. And worse, basing mobile tests on what Google says passes its mobile readiness does not automatically translate to a better user experience on all mobile devices.
Do I Need to Be Mobile Friendly?
For small businesses and organizations such as churches, non-profits and hobby sites, this news from Google presents a dilemma. The cost of owning a successful website is high enough, when you factor in keeping the content fresh, marketing strategies and basic maintenance. These costs are often under estimated. Many websites are made by volunteers with limited experience or by hiring people who are not skilled in user centered design, SEO, mobile design and accessibility.
While most website owners know they want their pages found in search engines, they are less likely to be thinking about the people searching and the types of computer they use. Google didn’t just decide one day to force the mobile requirement. They have known for years the direction computer use is heading into. Their usability department tests, tracks and analyzes user behavior and trends. You don’t get to be a monolith like Google by ignoring how people use computers.
And yet user testing by marketers and website designers is not routinely performed. Research into trends such as human computer behavior, persuasive design, and mobile device statistics are not an exercise many website owners are interested in. So for example, they are not thinking about how their workshop schedule displays on an iPad, or if someone is able watch a 20 minute marketing video from their Android smart phone.
Another reason many site owners are not jumping into redesigns is because they can see the desktop on their smart phones and tablets. For them, forcing visitors to magnify content is not a big deal. Many design fads that work in desktop layouts present user obstacles on mobile devices because there is no mouse to point and click mega-menus and sliders don’t load. Forms with tiny font sizes need to be magnified to be used on smart phones, creating user frustration. Images that are not instructed to resize on smaller screens become a page load disaster. One local organization site I know has a monthly calendar that has to be magnified to be seen on my cell phone.
Does your website need to work on mobile devices? Yes. Why? Because computer technology is changing. The devices we use are smaller. Software applications we depend upon in our homes, cars, workplaces and even hiking mountain trails are built for various environments and uses such as wearable devices, cell phone journals and automobile dashboard maps.
If you are not thinking and planning ahead, your website, contact form, software application and photo gallery will be obsolete and no longer usable.
Are Meeting Google’s Requirements Good Enough?
In a word, no. My tests show that even though Google’s Webmaster Tools indicate a passing grade, manual testing proves otherwise. This is because user experience cannot be automated.
Mobile testing tools are programmed to check for specific standards for mobile design. They do not test to see if your business and conversion goals are met.
For example, one of my clients has a website that is technically built for mobile devices. The users are expected to register to use the software if they are new or log in if they are regular users. The site relies heavily on its search function too. The call to action prompts to register/log in and search are hidden from view in the header on all mobile devices. In fact, if you were not familiar with the site from a desktop experience, and seeing it for the first time on a tablet or smart phone, it would be extremely difficult to figure out how to use it.
I elevated this concern not only because of the mobile experience but because the target users are as young as Middle School age students and old enough to be retired persons with limited vision and cognitive abilities. Just because Google accepted the site into its mobile search would not automatically mean it could be used on mobile devices.
Another website I tested is a marketing website that has a blog. The site passed Google’s test but not my manual testing. The blog has posts with images used to help illustrate the content that ran off the right side of the screen.
Mobile Ready May Not Mean Universally Mobile Ready
CNN recently redesigned their news website. I ran it through Google’s mobile test validator and it passed. I found this curious because my personal experience with the site on my Kindle is not desirable.
One of the myths going around is that if your website is not Responsive, Google will drop its rank. This is where the panic comes from. If you investigate deeper, you read there is a mobile index for Google. So what is that?
Google now knows what version of your website to show your users based on the type of device they are using. The CNN website pages are displayed in Google on my desktop computer with no “mobile-friendly” label in the description because that is not the index of results I’m pulling from. Google will show me the desktop version.
When I ask Google to show me CNN pages from my Android device, Google displays the results from its mobile-index with the label “mobile-friendly” appearing at the beginning of the site description. The Android layout stacks the content into one column, shrinks the lead video into a hero image, hides the pop-ups, hides the auto-play video ads and presents an organized reading experience with very little distractions.
Google does not recognize my Kindle as a tablet device and the search engine displays the desktop search index results. Nevertheless, what renders is not a pure desktop version, but rather it is slightly modified. The page instructs Kindle to stuff the header into a “hamburger” style navigation, but it continues to render all three columns. More distractions appear in the margins. Where ads or videos are hidden, empty space remains in the column, making it look awkward. This is an improvement however. A few weeks ago my Kindle was unable to render the CNN homepage without attempting to scroll two of the 3 columns on top of each other.
Another clue that Google is sending out different crawlers appears when a new post is made in Cre8asiteforums. The “isitors that appear include Google and Google Mobile. The forums passes Google’s mobile testing but anyone who uses forums on small devices knows the experiences vary, especially when logging in.
What Can I Do to Make My Website Ready for Google’s Mobile Index?
The deadline for having your website ready is April 21. The best place to start is by making sure your website is tracked by Google Analytics and Google’s Webmaster Tools. The tools are there to help you test your website’s performance. Google is emailing website owners when their websites are failing their mobile test. Don’t be surprised if you receive one for a Responsive website. I’ve seen this happen. Google will explain the issue it has found.
The best decision you can make is to test your web pages on all types of devices and especially, in many different environments. This is something that the majority of companies do not do. They don’t ask their programmers to beta test new software on moving trains packed with commuters or even in the environments their applications are used in, such as hospitals, schools, daycare centers, automobiles, horseback riding, and situations where people multi-task.
If you want people to use your website or software application on all devices, don’t rely on automated testing tools. Manual testing and investing in user testing, as well as performance and software QA testing are vital for successful websites that wish to keep up with advances in technology or simply to keep Google happily ranking and displaying your pages.