Jared Spool: Hello everyone. Welcome to another episode of the Spoolcast. I'm Jared Spool, your cruise director for the next few minutes. And, I've got with me two incredibly lovely people who I am very happy to introduce you to, Tamara Adlin and Vanessa Fox. They are both teaching a workshop for us at the User Interface 15 Conference called "Getting Them There and Keeping Them There."
Tamara is from Adlin, Inc., and she's the author of "The Persona Lifecycle, " and "The Essential Persona Lifecycle, " two fabulous books that if you don't have in your library, you're nuts! And, Vanessa Fox, formerly of Google, now of Nine by Blue, and is the author of "Marketing in the age of Google, " and if you don't have that book, shame on you. They are going to be talking about how you get people to your site, and how you keep them there through both the work of good search engine optimization and user experience. And, I'm very happy we have them today.
Hi there, Tamara and Vanessa. How are you guys?
Tamara Adlin: Awesome.
Vanessa Fox: Hi, thanks for having us on.
Jared: Super, super. This is our first time ever of having these two topics put together. I feel like it's a Reese's Pieces moment.
Tamara: That's right.
Jared: Somebody stuck my search engine optimization in my user experience.
Vanessa: We haven't decided yet whether user experience is the chocolate or the peanut butter.
Jared: Yes, I actually think it's the Cool Whip. [laughter]
I'm not sure exactly what that means. I think this is really interesting. When you first started talking to me about this, I thought, wow, that's brilliant. I'm really curious how this came about. I know, Vanessa, you were sort of neck deep in search engine stuff, because you came out of the Goog, right?
Vanessa: That's right, yes. You know, it's very interesting, because I've been working with search and search engine optimization for a really long time, and in fact, I think kind of the prevalent thought around search engine optimization is that it comes at the expense of user experience. And, you know, when I was at Google, and I managed the relationship between site owners and their understanding of how the unpaged search results worked, I always had a lot of people saying, oh, but I care about the user, and I don't want to have to think about search.
Whereas, from the Google perspective, we were always saying, no, what Google and what all the search engines want is to show sites that provide the best experience for the users. We don't want you to not think about that. And so, I feel like there's always been this thing where they should be integrated, but no one really thinks of them as integrated. In fact, a couple of years ago I started a site called janeandrobot.com, which is all about how you can build sites for people and search engines all at the same time.
Jared: Oh, I hadn't heard about that.
Vanessa: Yes, in fact, we're just revamping it right now, so we're going to relaunch it and have a bunch of new stuff come out on it.
Jared: This idea of building for the search engine and people, this is a topic that I hear a lot from many people in the SEO space is-I know that we've had Brian Eisenberg talk about this, and other folks, saying-if you make something very usable, the search engines naturally go after it. But then, search engine optimization has all this sort of mystical stuff around it that, once you do things, it sometimes doesn't feel very usable.
Vanessa: Yes, it's in a way kind of sad how that's happened, because I feel like search engine optimization has turned into a couple of branches. And so, when you hear the term SEO, you can't know sort of which branch you're talking about, and I feel like there's a whole branch of SEO where people are very concerned with specifics of search engine algorithms, and they try to build their sites according to all these specifics in the algorithms.
But, what I tell people-and so, I sort of operate under the other branch of SEO, which is, think about why the search engines have those algorithms. They're always making modifications all of the time, because they're trying to improve their goal. And, their goal is to have searchers find the best results. And so, if instead you build your site towards that aim, instead of towards the specifics to the algorithm, you're really going to have a more long-term sustained strategy than kind of all of this specific algorithm stuff. And that's where I think the confusion is. It's called SEO in both instances, but the approaches are totally different.
Jared: Yes, the other day someone sent me a tweet. I'm trying to find it now, but it's something along the lines of, how many SEO people does it take to change a light bulb, bulb, light, fluorescent...and all the synonyms.
Jared: I think that sort of captures this feeling of simplicity that I don't think really represents what really good search engine stuff is about.
Vanessa: Yes, that's absolutely right. Actually, we have some of this in the workshop, and I talk about it a lot in the book as well, which is, it is very important to think about how people search for things. But, it's not so that you can spam your pages and spam the search engines. It's that you can have a better understanding of your audience, the kind of language that they use, what they're actually looking for. You can take a look and see, what are their problems, and how can we help them solve those problems? So, all the data that's out there on what people search for is awesome, awesome data, but there's just much better ways of using it than that.
Jared: Right. Now, Tamara, when I first started reading your book, and seeing you a few years back...
Tamara: Still haven't finished it yet, though, have you? It's way too long.
Jared: Yes, well, the plot's a little thin, but the characters are great.
Jared: I want to know if you signed Angelina for the movie rights.
Tamara: Yes, to play John.
Jared:[laughs] I think that's a good casting choice, actually. You weren't talking about search so much back then.
Tamara: No, and I'll tell you why. Because the dirty little secret is, it scared the crap out of me, just like it scares the crap out of most user experience people, because it's this whole thing that we're supposed to know something about. But, the truth is that most of us don't know anything about it, because for some reason, we're terrified of it.
And, maybe it's because it's all algorithmic and stuff, and it feels all intimidating because there's all these rules around it, and the kind of content you have to put on the page. I didn't know anything about it, and that's the truth. But, Vanessa and I met through friends that we both have in common in Seattle, because we both live here, even though she lives all over the planet, most of the time, I stay here most of the time, and we met through other power broads in the industry, and we started talking.
And honestly, it wasn't until we did the first workshop together, that I really started to get it, when it comes to SEO. And, the magical thing, is that, it's actually a very obvious and familiar problem that it's trying to solve, which is, there's a conversation that we're having with users. And, that, the only way to have a great conversation is to know who you're talking to, and to have a pretty good idea of the topic, and to listen as much as you speak. And, fundamentally, that's our job.
And it just so happens that Vanessa and SEO people like her, are focusing on an earlier part of the conversation than people like me, and you, Jared, and other folks in the UX community tend to be able to think about.
And so, we started talking and we started joking around about our silly clients, and all of this other stuff, and we realized that we're both absolutely hired to do something different than what people think they're hiring us to do, but we're both hired to do exactly the same thing, which is, to ask people to write down their business goals. [laughter]
Vanessa: Yep. [laughter]
Tamara: And, it's funny, but it's not so funny, right? So, once you do that, then you know what your half of the conversation is supposed to be. Here are our goals. We want people to do X, and Y, and if they do so, we think we'll make money, and we think those people will be happy. But, no SEO, and no UX, is going to be successful without that clarity, no matter how good you are as a professional, in whatever your field is.
Vanessa: Yeah, no, it's absolutely the case, that's kind of, I think, where we first hit on, sort of, realizing that, really, there was so much overlap. And what we did was that, any time I go in and talk to a company, and they say, "Oh, we need help with SEO, or we need help in ranking."
I have to sort of back them up and say, "Well, what's the goal of your business, why do you have a website, what audience are you trying to attract, what does that audience want, how are you solving on their problems, and what is it that you have that is interesting, that makes them want to do whatever your business goal is?" and backing them all the way up.
'Cause you need all of those answers before you can really help them engage with people through search. And that's just the exact same thing that people are really doing with user experiences, as well. So, there's just such a nice to fit there.
Tamara: I think there's a lot that can be done to improve, I mean, the SEO problems that a lot of companies have, there's a ton of really high tech stuff, I'm sure, that you can do. But it's like the Maslow's pyramid thing. It's like, there's so much basic stuff that's being done wrong right now, that's simply attached to not being clear about what your business does, and why I should care, as a consumer. There's so much that can be fixed, just with that basic, that basic clarity. I think both of us spend a lot of time, doing stuff that's surprisingly basic.
Vanessa: Well, on the other thing about that as well, that I have to sort of remind companies that I work with over and over, is, from an SEO perspective, it's not enough to just rank well. Because, there's a reason that you want to rank well, beyond just the ranking alone, and if you're site is crappy, and if it doesn't help people, and if it's not easy to tell how you get to the end of the funnel, people just bounce right off it.
So, if all you get is the ranking part right, but you don't get the engagement on the site right, it's all for nothing. And so, that's kind of a big piece that, it's like, you know, we can do all of this work, but then, you're not going to get any benefit, unless you have all of the pieces of the puzzle.
Tamara: And, conversely, you can have the best user experience in the world, but if people can't find it, then, what the hell? There's no magical magnet that draws people there, if the experience is user friendly. And so, Vanessa ends up talking to people who want to, like, pour more water in a bucket that has huge holes in the bottom, and I end up trying to patch holes in the bottom of a bucket that no water is pouring into, and sadness ensues in the land of the web.
Jared: This is interesting, to me, Vanessa.
Tamara: Of course it is, Jared!
Jared: No, it is. It really is.
Vanessa: We only talk about interesting stuff, otherwise we would get bored. We're only going to work on stuff that's cool.
Jared: That makes perfect sense to me. Vanessa, had you heard of personas before you, as you put it, the power broads, which, I just love that term now. I want to create, like, a wall poster of the UX power broads.
Tamara: Now, you guys were in a cartoon.
Tamara: So, you know.
Jared: Yes, we definitely could have a comic strip of UX power broads. There's a graphic novel in there somewhere.
Had you heard of personas before you started talking, and was this something you were familiar with, or?
Vanessa: My background is somewhat chaotic, perhaps you would call it, I like to say it's.
Jared: Well, that'll make a good graphic novel story, I think.
Vanessa: That's right. So, I spent a number of years as a product manager, so I did a lot of stuff with user experience as a product manager, and actually, before that, I was a tech writer. And so, I did a lot with user experience there, so, even before I came to the search world, I had been spending a lot of time, sort of, thinking about these types of things.
And so, for me, it was really logical to think that they would all be parts of a larger whole. So I was very happy to kind of see, and kind of, talk with someone, who, really, like, knows everything there is, right, about sort of user experience, and personas, and audience analysis, and so, even though I had done a lot with it before, I certainly learned a lot during this process of, you know, this workshop, and sort of figuring out.
I started stealing some of Tamara's ideas and tactics in my own work. Don't let her know that, though.
Tamara: That's OK, I've stolen all of yours. [laughter]
Vanessa: Yeah, so, we ended up working.
Jared: That was a nervous laugh.
Tamara: We ended up working together on a, you know, everybody knows everybody everywhere, I guess, but in Seattle, we have friends and colleagues in common, that we started doing a project with, together, and, that started a lot of thinking, and I had the honor of participating in Vanessa's book, which was truly awesome. And, so we just.
Vanessa: I was so excited about that.
Tamara: We had been hovering around each other for awhile, and then we started talking, and everything just started completely falling into place. Which makes a huge amount of sense, once you think about it, you know.
So, I'm sure, like you were saying, Vanessa, that you had been involved in user experience, and of course, that's all about audience analysis. I had, of course, heard of SEO, and SEM, and sort of, you know, done that cough into my sleeve thing, when somebody asks me about it. And then finally would end up saying, "Yeah, I don't know jack about SEO and SEM, that's not my thing, " but I always had this sneaking suspicion that there was something terribly wrong with that answer.
I actually am, kind of, nervous about anything that takes a lot of spreadsheets, and it felt, to me, like there was some magical mystical black box that, I was just nervous about getting anywhere near it. Until there was, sort of, this sensible approach that, "Oh, well, duh. What terms do your target users think of when they think about changing their insurance policy?" It's not that they think of your brand new branded "Policy Accelerator Plus", you know.[laughter]
Or if they're thinking about buying a new chair, they don't think about the Butt Synth 2000. They think about the words "comfortable chair". And even though we get so fond of our own branding, and trying to differentiate with words, that can get us into terrible trouble. Because regular people don't think in terms of our little brands and sub brands. If they think about us at all as a company, they may have one or two words that they use around that. The rest is so obvious; we forget that people use regular words to start the conversation with us...Which often they start by typing into a search box.
Vanessa: It's amazing to me how often I talk to people, that that's the first thing they ask me. Is, "How do I get people to search for..." And then they tell me the name of their product, and it's like some random crazy product name. And I'm like, "Well, you probably can't get more people to search for that. I mean, unless you have a multi-million dollar ad budget, right? ...Where you're doing ads on the Super bowl. Then sure you can get search spikes. But instead what problem does your product solve? Because that's what people are searching for." That's the easier thing than just trying to get people to search for your product name. But a lot of people just don't really think about that.
Tamara: Or they're defensive about it. They don't want to use the term that's common out there, because they think using the common terms are going to make them appear common. But it's biting off your nose to spite your face, right? So it's just amazing how basic most of the things we do actually are. And it's a constant surprise to me that there's actually job security in asking the most simple questions.
Jared: Yes! But what's really amusing is, you ask the simple questions, and you get that guilty, squeamish, stare at your shoes reaction of...
Vanessa: No one knows the answer!
Tamara: Well that brings up something else that we've talked about a lot. Both Vanessa and I have a lot of experience with internal process. And the truth is that there are very good reasons that people that do what we do are consultants rather than inside people. Not that you can't do some of this stuff from the inside, but the truth is that breaking through the politics and pushing aside the sacred cows is really where our clients get their money's worth. As much as, if not more than anything else, they finally have someone come in from the outside who is willing to ask the stupid questions...That is career suicide if you're a V.P. of blah-dee-blah, or a C. blank. O... To raise your hand in a meeting with your peers and say, "I don't remember what our business objectives are." But nobody does!
Jared: The example I've been using lately, and I've been doing this with teams... I'll have people in a meeting and I'll say, "OK. Take out a sheet of paper, and write down the plotline in bullet point form...The story of Hansel and Gretel." And people will write down seven or 10 different types of things there. And then I say, "OK. On the other side of the paper, write down in bullet form your business objectives, and what you're trying to do with your product." And they can't! And I'll say, "OK. Let's compare the first side with your neighbor. Let's see how much you have in common with them. Oh yeah! It's exactly the same! OK! Let's compare the other side." [laughter]
Vanessa: That's great.
Jared: So you guys all know that you've never talked about Hansel and Gretel, but you've been spending the last five years working on your business objectives and you mission... And which ones do you have more in common with?"
Vanessa: So true...Sad, but true.
Tamara: It's a problem that's not where you think it is. The problem is that companies are set up to be siloed, and there are five or six C level, or V.P. level, people...Which essentially means that there's this sort of quasi-competition set up. So you end up with this effect that I call PNL equals URL. If I have my own profit and loss statement that's associated with my job performance, then I try to stay in as much control as I can over my piece of the website, or my piece of the software...Which naturally causes a problem for users. And it doesn't really end up helping me in the end, or helping the company in the end. But there's no other choice.
There's no other choice and nobody's talking about it. So as much as anything, we are trying to improve the user centered design of the company process. Our users are the people that we talk to in the company. And we try to create a product which is a process for them to talk about their business in a new and different way...And start this conversation between them that hasn't been existing...Even as it looks like we're trying to create a conversation between them and their customers. It's a funny thing.
Jared: It is! I don't know if you've ever read Gerald Weinberg's "The Secrets of Consulting". It's a great book...And he's got some rules in there. And the first rule is, "No matter how much the client insists otherwise, there's always a problem."
Tamara: Yes. [laughs]
Vanessa: Right. Both of us are writing down the name of this... [laughs]
Jared: Yeah. Gerald Weinberg. And the second rule is, "No matter how much the client insists otherwise, it's almost always a people problem."
Tamara: That's right.
Vanessa: That makes sense.
Jared: And he's an IT consultant, and he figured this out 30 years ago. Someone handed me this book when I first started user interface engineering. And it's been like a bible to me ever since. You're absolutely right, almost always the work we end up doing is process. We can sit there and think we're coming up with keywords or changing screens... But really, if we're making any lasting value, it's talking about "How do we do this more effectively going forward?" And that's a process related issue.
Tamara: I don't want to leave the impression that it's just from the outside that this can happen. A lot of what we talk about in our session too, is if you are on the inside, and at the bottom of the pile... There are a few actual physical things that you can do, that can help with this...Without you risking losing your job. [laughs]
Vanessa: Yeah, and it's particularly nice with some of the data that's available from what people search for. Because there are billions of searches a day, right? So you actually get a lot of data about it. One thing that's nice is that it gives people a little bit of leverage. A lot of what I do sometimes is to break the tie. Where someone is like, "I think the product should do this. I think the product should do that. I think that we should have a priority of building this kind of content."
And at least you can go in and look and say, "Well there were a million searches for this, and just a thousand searches for that." At least that kind of thing can help you. But all of that is still a process thing...Where you say, "OK. Holistically, if we're going to integrate all of the silos... And we're going to say that what these people want is going to be more valuable than this..." What's the process around evaluating that? You can start to pull those types of things in to improve that process.
Jared: So I'm wondering... If I'm working in an organization where these two groups have traditionally been separated, and not talked to each other... What is the biggest challenge of getting this integrated thinking, of what you're doing on the search side...Which is often a pre-sale/marketing thing vs. what you're doing on the site side...Which for some businesses is post-sale, some it's marketing communications, some it's actually part of product development, or service development. What sort of challenges are there that people will run into? And what are some tricks to getting those things to start to work together, in, you know, three minutes or less?
Vanessa: [laughs] I have the magic answer! That really is the root of it, right? That's really the hardest part, and I think, how it works is that an organization really buries, based on the structure of the organization, what they're looking for. Of course the way that it works easiest, but this is the hardest to, kind of, get to, is when it comes from the top, right?
The book that I wrote, is sort of for that executive level, to explain to them why you need this holistic strategy across the siloes, and I've certainly worked with start-ups and stuff, right? Where a member of the board, realizes this, and sort of says, "OK, we need to make this a mandate across the organization." But if you are on one side or the other, and you're trying to figure out how to integrate across, what I have found to be fairly successful is just providing some explanation of what the value and benefit is to the other side, right?
So, if you're on the product side, and you're trying to get this integrated, you could talk with the search people about how it's really going to help their analytics numbers, 'cause you're going to engage people more. And if you're on the search side, you know, trying to engage with the product people, you can sort of explain how the information that you have will help them build a better product. It's certainly not an easy sell all the time, right? 'Cause people like their siloes.
Jared: Right, right. And the book you wrote was "Marketing in the Age of Google", right?
Jared: A great book for people to really understand sort of the strategy of this.
Vanessa: I try to explain, sort of, how these parts can, sort of, work, in a more holistic and effective way.
Tamara: Well, and the other thing that I think is, at the heart of what we're going to be talking about in our workshop, is this idea of personas. That neither of us are fans of spending tons of time doing tons of research to create personas. At least, at the outset. But if you can do ad hoc personas that at least get everybody to agree, "Well, Janice, is at this moment, probably a more important target than Felipe, " then all of a sudden "Janice" and "Felipe" become these apolitical words that allow people to communicate in ways that they just couldn't do before.
So, marketing and SEO can talk about how they're going to attract "Janice" and get her to click in the first place, and then the UX team and product management, or whatever, can say, "Yeah, well, once we get her here, here's how we're going to follow through on that promise with a user experience path, and conversion path, " and all of those great things, that actually is going to come through on what it is that we're offering her, through our advertising, or what have you.
And then, later on, when somebody comes in and says, "Oh, well, I think the whole thing should be blue, " the lowliest person in the org can say, "Well, it sounds great, but it's sounds like, really, the only person who would appreciate it being blue is Felipe, and aren't we focusing on Janice right now?"
Which can suddenly give whoever it was, that flew over and dropped that bomb, a way to get out of it that's graceful, and is not politically threatening. It's not admitting that you're stupid, it's just saying, "Oh, you know, you're right, that really is something that would be better for Felipe, so let's go ahead and put that in our Round two notes, and let's stick with the Janice feature, because I don't want to punt on that one."
Vanessa: Yeah, absolutely, and even the stuff above that, getting everyone to agree, of course, on those business goals, can help, right? 'Cause?
Tamara: No, it's magical. Yeah.
Tamara: It's astounding, every time I go into a company, I say, well, the first thing we're going to do is clarify the business goals, and that's in the contract, and in the SOW, and all of these great things, and they say, "Oh, well, we don't really need that piece, because we're already clear on our business goals."
And I say, "Well, that's fantastic, it'll go really fast, you know?"
Tamara: And then, the business goals I get are things like, "Oh, well, see, here we are, we're very clear, we want to increase revenue and decrease costs, and build a reputation."
Vanessa: "Need a lot of traffic."
Tamara: "A lot of traffic, and have the reputation of the best possible customer service throughout the industry."
And, I'm like, "That's fabulous. But, OK, that means you have the same business goals as everybody on the planet, and they're not measurable, they're not specific, they're not actionable." So, what I insist on, is, business goals that have numbers. Do we want to move 20% of our print customers online by 2011, and brand goals that are talking about, you know, how you want people to perceive your brand in general? Which brings up some of those, you know, sub brands that are a problem, like the "Ecochair four million" or whatever.
And customer experience, goals and value propositions and differentiators. Which are, you know, what do you offer that's different than everybody else, and why should I care? Which is something Vanessa talked about a few minutes ago. It's exactly the same thing. It all comes back to being able to say, super clearly, "Here's what we got that nobody else got, and here's why you should care."
Jared: I think that this is really powerful for folks, and I think this is going to be a tremendously fun workshop. I can't wait to be a part of it. 'Cause I think that, using the personas to see the entire picture from before they've even heard of you, because they're just going to the search engine, and beginning to think about the terms they're putting in, to all the way through the experience, and making sure they get what they want, and keep coming back, and all of that stuff.
I've always felt that personas were this fabulous way to create a shortcut around the business, the idea that I can just say "Felipe" and I can just say, "Janice" and everybody knows what we're talking about. I've always felt it was really, really powerful when that worked. And we're seeing more and more instances now of the companies that we've talked to that are making personas work for them, and getting them beyond just, sort of, glorified Barbie and Ken descriptions, but into something that's really very human about their customers, and that they can actually talk to, because they've met the people who went into the personas, and they know the issues, and they know what they're focusing on, and it's really, really quite great.
So, I think this is going to be a fabulous workshop. So, I'm really excited that you guys are coming.
Vanessa: Yeah, we're going to have a fun time, too, I think. We always like to have a fun time.
Tamara: Yes, there will be cursing. Just warning, fair warning.
Jared: Damn. [laughter]
Tamara: Worse than that.
Jared: Wow, OK. Super. I will then take notes.
Tamara: Well, it's such an honor to be part of your conference this year. We're really thrilled that we're both going to be able to come and we always learn a lot when we do these things. And this is, really, only the second time that we'll be doing this together, so, it's still fresh and new, this is not going to be stuff that people have really heard before, so, we're just really jazzed about it.
Jared: Well, it's great. It's exciting and I'm the one who's honored that you guys are both coming and doing this for us, so.
Vanessa: No, we are honored. We're the honored ones.
Tamara: No, we are. No, me. [laughter]
Jared: OK, we'll wrestle with that when you get here.
OK, well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about this today. This has been really interesting, and I'm really excited about the workshop. And I want to thank both of you, so, Vanessa, thank you, Tamara, thank you.
Vanessa: Yeah, thank you.
Jared: And, I want to thank our audience for listening to us yet one more time, it's always great to have you there. Thanks for encouraging our behavior. We'll talk to you next time.