Follow on Twitter
PPC Certification Medallion
SEOmoz member

SEO Dojo member

Featured in Level343s Top SEO Women of 2011

Search process: usability lessonsI came across a fascinating article on web searchers' problem solving skills. The focus of the study was on web design and usability. However, there are several lessons from the study that apply to SEO. The findings of this study can impact SEO keyword research as well as keyword targeting strategy.

You can find the full article at Jacob Nielsen's website: Incompetent Research Skills Curb Users' Problem Solving I will also use the examples from the study because they are just too good. All quotes are from the article (displayed in italics). I will provide the summary of findings and how they can be applied in your own website optimization.

Here is how searcher's behavior can impact your website optimization strategies.

Findings: The Way Users Search

The summary of the study simply states:

Users increasingly rely on individual pages listed by search engines instead of finding better ways to tackle problems.

Users are not creative when they search. They use the same technique over and over instead of changing the search approach. The example used in the article was, when the search for flu symptoms did not produce desired results, it took a while for a searcher to start looking for the name of the disease.

When optimizing your website for searches, think bigger and be more practical. Like on Jeopardy, come up with a question, not the answer. If your website is about common cold, optimize for the symptoms, rank for them and be that answer amongst useless results and win the searcher's attention. Go further, optimize for side effects even. Match the searcher's query early on because they might not progress to the next level and look for "common cold". They might just call their doctor and be done with the whole thing.

Users always use the same search strategy

Big problem with search today is "it doesn't facilitate any conceptual knowledge because it relies on quick in-out dips into websites. "

The study comes up with an interesting finding. The better search gets, the more people rely on the search results assuming that must be the answer. We learn the new skill of search and follow the familiar patterns. "Today, many users are so reliant on search that it's undermining their problem-solving abilities." Advanced search is almost never used. And when a user does use advanced search, they use it wrong.

Moreover, users use the same search strategy for different tasks. If the results of the search are not satisfactory, the users do not change the search strategy. Instead, they try to adjust the search query.

Search is becoming too good. The same approach works most of the time; users do not develop research skills needed to try other approaches. "Users have extraordinarily inadequate research skills when it comes to solving problems on the Web." They also exhibit lack of understanding of search as a tool. For example, an interior decorator entered queries into any text box on a site, not understanding if the search is limited to the site or searches the entire Web.

SEOs should not expect the user to be a sophisticated searcher. Analyze your internal search queries and find opportunities to provide answers for your visitors beyond the basics. It is important for search specialists to understand the search process, beyond just keywords. Advanced search will not help your website. Spend most of your resources perfecting regular search.

Users have poor research skills

Searchers apply one-track research strategy. No critical thinking is involved. Most users take the first answer they come across and run with it. More advanced searchers will spend more time on search but end up with the same result because they are limited by the search engine results. The problem is that "search engines are turning into 'answer engines'."

SEOs and website content managers need to adjust to the search habits of their visitors and assist visitors with poor research skills. Think how your information can be useful to the searcher by helping understand it faster. For example, when listing city populations, include numbers with and without suburbs. When creating website content, you have to think like a searcher, not like a website owner - easier said than done.

SEO Takeaways

Think like a searcher. We have to write for the way the world is and rank for the words searchers use to find the solution that we offer. Quit with the lingo and make it simple.

Match your answer to the query. We have to assume that the searchers are not going to use advanced techniques. When accessing SERPs for a keyword, look beyond the ranking content and think about what's going on in a searcher's head. It might mean, that they are not finding what they are looking for and you can get ahead.

Test, test, test. Dive into your analytics, use Google Website optimizer, create new content, conduct usability surveys. All that will help you figure out what goes on in a searcher's head. And once you are done, do it all again because, as we know, everything is always changing.

Have every possible answer. "Don't Make Me Think" principle applies more than ever. Provide practical ways your website information can be used. Do not assume that the visitor will figure it out on their own. One of the best books on website usability I have ever read is "Don't Make Me Think" by Steve Krug (affiliate link). This is the best $20 you will ever spend if you are interested in improving your website usability.

What are your thoughts about the study? Do you agree with the findings? Was it helpful for your website optimization strategy?