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How to Craft a Website that is Both Search and User Friendly

How can you build a website that sells and sees customers do what you would like them to do? According to Shari Thurow, a usability expert who has been involved in the world of search since 1995, you must start with information architecture and an understanding of how "keyword scent" and "mental models" drive customers through the sales process.

In this interview conducted at SES Toronto, Shari shares common sense tips that will help you make your website more effective.

The 2012 SES Toronto conference will take place from June 11-13.

How to Craft a Website that is Both Search and User Friendly Transcript


Q: Julie King here with Shari Thurow, and Shari is a guru in information architecture, user design and search, is that correct?

A: Yes it is

Q: And Shari has been around in the industry for a number of years?

A: Since 1995. I think I have everybody beat except Eric Ward.

Q: So tell us about your background…

A: I have a very big background in library sciences. I was getting my Masters and PhD in Japanese language and literature and we were required to take two library science classes. One of them in American English and the other one of course being Japanese and I’ve never looked back. I have been a search person ever since then.

Q: Our audience is small business owners and they really struggle because first of all, they’re often very, very busy with what makes them money. And then they are like “I need to deal with this Internet thing” and they want to build a website. It is the most normal starting point for a small business owner and they get torn in different directions between this slick design person who says “I am going to build you this amazing website” and they build a pretty picture. And then they get the person that comes along and says “no, we are going to use search engine optimization that is full of keywords with doorway pages and all that stuff.” And then they get someone that says they need to be blogging and on social media and all that. So where does this person who just really wants to sell their product online and expand their marketing – where do they start?

A: Well, we name three groups that you want to stay away from. First of all, design comes last and architecture comes first. Architecture precedes design by months. You have to understand how your target audience thinks. Here is an example in America – the About Us page. The About Us page to a lot of Americans is bragging. So you do not lead with Home and then Navigation button About Us. You need Home and what is the product and services that you offer – that is good architecture. But somewhere like France or Japan, the About Us button is very important because it is creditability so you put the About Us button more prominently if you are marketing in these countries. So you need somebody with that kind of level head who is not going to sit there and say “we can make this pretty, we can make this gorgeous”. After the architecture is done, then you make it pretty. It’s like “let’s decorate the house before it’s built” – so you need to have a level head about that. The other thing is the second you hear “doorway pages and I guarantee I can get your site number one”, stay away from that. Anybody that says it’s too good to be true; it is too good to be true. So stay away from them and the truth is, you do not need a blog to write. You do not need twitter to write. If your target audience uses twitter and if your target audience uses facebook, then absolutely! At least get your domain, your personal name, your company name and any trademarks just so you are protected, but you don’t need them. A lot of manufacturers, they don’t blog. They don’t care! Why waste your time? Why waste your money? If you have a level head about this, you will be okay. Don’t fall for the sales hype and ask a lot of questions.

Q: And then there is the other side of the coin where because they don’t know how to make a decision, their decision is to go with a $5/month website that they build themselves…

A: Oh god, don’t do that either because it is an information architects job to be an information architect. It is a web designer’s job to be a web designer so let them do their jobs. It is your website and it is ultimately your decision, but trust me, your wife, your son, your uncle and your nephew probably don’t have those skills so hire someone with a lot of skills.

Q: So, you are a usability expert. So let’s just get a couple of high-level, key points for a small business owner who maybe doesn’t even know what usability is. So, usability is how easy it is to use the website and navigate around. Can you give me a great definition for that?

A: Usability is about task completion. So let’s say the person wants to buy something from you. How easy are you making it to let them buy it? The beautiful flash movie that you just paid a lot of money for, that is not making it easy to buy.

Q: And there is some known principles or there used to be known principles but the thing is I think some ideas some get tired and people keep saying them even though some things have change. Is it still three clicks that you have to get someone in?

A: That is utter and complete nonsense. The three click rule is complete nonsense. It is called information scent. In search engines, information scent are keywords. People type in keywords in a search engine, they want to see keywords on the search result page and they want to see the keywords on their website. And if they want to buy something, they want a picture of it. That is information scent. If the information scent is strong, people will click up to 25 times and make a purchase. If information scent weakens like with the beautiful flash movie you just bought, they disappear. That means you the website owner or the person you hired to design the website diminished information scent. Any book by Jacob Neilson or by Jarrod Spool, website visibility experts – some of these books are over ten years old but the principles are still valid, but people say they want the latest and greatest. People want sites that work. You can make it pretty, you can change the scarves!

Q: But then sometimes we get someone who is a fabulous information architect that doesn’t necessarily understand the human emotion and the design aspect. I have seen a number of websites that are well architected but they look unprofessional…

A: But an information architect’s job is not to be a designer.

Q: A lot of times people are buying from one shop which is one of the problems with small businesses.

A: And that is when you have to go to different businesses and a really good information architect will work with a good firm. A really good search engine optimizer will work with good social media people. Even if they have a full shop, they probably charge $10,000 a month so get rid of them. In fact, I would say the best search engine optimizers that I know, none of them worked for a big company. They don’t want people being their boss. You will find them. They are not the people you think they are. I am weird – there are very few people who can architect, design and usability test, so I am probably one in a million and I will still be the first person to tell you to work with different firms.

Q: And you said good usability is keyword scent and this ties directly into our search engine optimization because we are talking about pulling people from Google. Can you give us a couple tips for the small business owner that doesn’t really understand this?

A: Something silly is titles. Ask a developer what a title is. You need to title everything uniquely. The titles of your videos, the titles of your HTML pages, the titles of your images, the titles of everything need to be unique and need to contain keywords. It has to reflect the content. If you have a picture of the Eiffel tower, what are you going to name it? Photo hyphen Eiffel hyphen tower dot JPG. Use common sense! And take the time to do this because guess what the big companies aren’t doing? They’re not taking the time to do that. If you take the time to do that, you might not be number one but you will be in the top ten with the top companies and believe me, people will pick a user friendly website over the slick design any day.

Q: And Google has changed a few things too with its recent panda update. Does this affect the way people are optimizing?

A: Well the spammers are whining about it. Boohoo the spammers! But no, if you make a user-friendly website and you architect it well, which is based on the mental models of the users, not the mental models of the tech team, then it stands the test of time. It doesn’t matter if it’s Panda, it doesn’t matter if its Panda 2, it doesn’t matter if it’s Florida, you’ve built a good website and it will weather every single storm.

Q: So what is a mental model?

A: Here is an easy way to think about it. You go into an elevator, you need to go to the lobby, what button do you push? The Lobby button. The doors open and it is the second floor, do you get out? No, because it is not the lobby. That is the mental model of an elevator. People have mental models of websites. If I click the about us button, I expect to go to the about us page. If I click the home page button, I expect to get brought to the home page. I don’t want to go to this keyword doorway page. If I type in the world video in the search engine, I want to see a video listing and when I click on that link to your page, I want to see at least a little area of video with a caption that is people’s mental model. Now you are going to have technical people, marketing people and the bosses wife tell you that it is not the way they do it. We don’t care about that! Are you buying your own products and services? No!

Q: That is really big problem when I talk to small businesses because too often they put their own viewpoint and they try to direct the process and determine what is going to happen.

A: And that is exactly what I talked about today in the information architect session. If you give someone only one choice, they feel controlled and when people feel controlled, they won’t do what you want them to do. So you have to give them choices so they feel like they’re in control. It doesn’t mean you give them a thousand choices like a search engine spammer would do. It means here are reasonable choices – people who bought this product also bought this product and this product which can increase sales as well. A lot of this is common sense. You have to get out of your own head and think like somebody who is not you, which is hard to do.

Q: Are there certain low hanging fruit or buttons that people can tap into? Do people tend to like a blue button more than a green button? Or should you being doing baby testing which is actually letting you go in and test on your website what is better and is what is not? What do you think?

A: There are some things that are easy to remember. Blue is good color to use for a link. It just is. There are many different shades blue so just pick the blue that matches your logo and don’t make anything else on the website that color because that blue color means this is clickable. It doesn’t even have to be underlined; it just means that is what the clickable text is. And a lot of people don’t do that. So something as simple as that. Something that everybody should do – make the button bigger and make the font a little bit bigger. If you have a three column website, believe or not you have just created a grid. If you want people’s eyes to go to a button, round the corners of the rectangle because people’s eyes will actually go from straight lines to a curved line. Then you can change the dimension – you can put a bevel or a drop shadow so it just stands out. Then pick a color that is a brighter color like yellow or orange or something like that. It’s perfect!

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