Jared Spool: Hello, everyone. Welcome to another episode of the SpoolCast. Today, I have Shari Thurow who did a fabulous virtual seminar for us, "When Search Meets Web Usability." It's also the title of her book, and she's here with me on the line to answer some questions. Shari, how are you?
Shari Thurow: I'm fine, thank you very much. Hello, everyone.
Jared: So, in your virtual seminar, you walked us through four basic principles. Of good usability and good search and keeping those things working together, which are also in your book. We got a whole bunch of excellent questions from people. So, I thought we'd take some time today and answer those questions.

The first one came from Johnny. He wrote that the information design of a page sometimes means a more visual representation is more usable. He wanted to know how does that play against search engine's need for something that's more textual.

Shari: Well, I'm also a web designer and a web developer, and I certainly appreciate his perspective. Because even I have an issue with the search engines on how they handle images. For example, I prefer, a great deal of the time, to use a text-based navigation for primary navigation on a website, because I find that more people complete their tasks more efficiently by doing so.

So, when I hear representatives from Google or another search engine optimizer tell me to change everything into text links, I immediately am taken aback, because that's not thinking about the user, that's thinking about the search engines only.

So, my way of dealing with sites that have primarily graphics or primarily Flash is, you do have to put text on the page if you want search engine visibility. Search engines, right now, really have no way of determining the context in which you're using your images. So, it doesn't mean you have to put 800 keyword stuffed paragraphs on your page, but it's OK to put a page summary. It's OK to put a conclusion paragraph. It's OK to do a little bit of text that describes your content. With cascading style sheets, you can make this text look really, really nice. But, if you want search engine visibility, you really got to put text on the page.

Also, what you're leaving up to the search engines, which is scary, is you're allowing them to determine the aboutness of the page, based on how other sites link to your website. So, you're actually taking away some of the control, as the website owner, in determining the aboutness of the page. So, I think it's about striking a balance between visual, graphics, and multimedia and putting CSS or HTML text on the page.

I think, if this person tested more, he might find that the combination has a better outcome. Not just in terms of rankings, but mostly in terms of conversions and how can people complete their tasks.

Jared: And by testing, what do you mean?
Shari: Usability testing. I am a very strong proponent of usability testing. Like you, I've been doing it for years. I tend to find more from usability test than I've ever found from any other type of testing. A lot of people ignore big, honking graphic images on a page because they think, "OK, big ad." [laughs] They go straight for the text, because that's what they came there for, especially if they're arriving from a search engine.

One of the things, Nick, my co-author, pointed out is we love to do an expectancy test, where we show people a search listing and we ask people, "If you click on this link, what do you expect to see on the page?" One of the things we might ask is, "Do you expect to see some kind of graphic images on the page?" Depending on how they answer, so if they answer yes, "What do you expect to see?" A lot of times, especially on an ecommerce site, we hear "Add to cart" button. People want to see an "Add to cart" button and they want to see a product photo. Over the years, we just keep hearing this over and over and over again. So, the expectancy test is wonderful for determining what people wish to see on a page and expect to see on a page.

Jared: Another type of test that you talked about in the seminar was the 5-second test. It generated a question from the folks at Mitre who asked, "When you're thinking about a 5-second test, is it not a good idea to have a dominant feature on your home page be big, color photographs?"
Shari: I think so, and I love the 5-second usability test. In fact, I tend to use the 5-second usability test to determine whether or not a page is focused on specific keywords to users. It's one of my favorite usability tests; it's really easy to do.

The problem with a home page is that a lot of website designers think that the purpose of the home page is to look pretty. The purpose of a home page is really to act as a table of contents to a website, focusing users on the areas of the site that are most important to you as a business owner and also helping them accomplish their desired tasks. Do they need to log in? You should supply a nice log in area.

We also find that, on the home page, there's another area where people skip the big, honking graphic image. They're looking for the text, because a home page is a means to an end. People don't go to a home page and accomplish their task on a website on a home page. They're actually trying to go to a product page, a service page, or an article page. That's what they're doing to accomplish their tasks. So, I think big, color photographs on the home page tend not to be a good design.

In fact, I did the usability test on this a few weeks ago. The client shows the design with the big honking, color photographs. We found that the photographs, same photographs, but scaled different. So, same pictures, just scaled down, a little more text to get people to go to certain sections of the website. That actually performed better. A hundred percent of the users that we tested on were able to complete the task. But, the one with the big, honking, graphic images, only 14 percent of the people completed their desired tasks.

Jared: That sounds really interesting. Of course, if you're a website that sells big, color photographs.
Shari: [laughs] Of course.
Jared: Maybe that's an OK reason to have them. But, you might want lots of small versions of it, so the people can see all the big color photographs. Be that we're talking about a lot graphics here, the elephant in the room, of course, is Flash. Darlene asked, "Is there a way that Flash content can be optimized?"
Shari: That's a loaded question because the answer is it depends on the circumstances. Is your site done entirely in Flash? That's a site that's very difficult to optimize, because a lot of times, Flash sites only have one page. They only have one URL, and that's the home page. You know what, that looks like to a search engine. It's a website with only one page on it. So, that's like putting all your eggs in one basket..

So, a lot of times, when we tell people who have Flash sites, split up the content into multiple pages. So, at least, you'll have this section can be focused on these keywords, this section can be focused on these keywords. So, it's not putting all your eggs in one basket. But, Flash elements on a page is usually a better option and I think you and I can agree Flash, it's not that we object the Flash, we just object how Flash is being used.

Jared: Right. Yeah. As I often say that you can't blame DVD players for Jim Carrey movies.
Shari: [laughs] I agree. I concur.
Jared: So, we shouldn't blame Flash for hard to use, hard to optimize content. But, choosing that as your tool of choice presents more hurdles than if you picked other tools that are available to you in terms of ending up with something that is as usable and is as optimized as it could be.
Shari: Believe it or not, at search engine conferences, I get this question all the time. But, before I even consider Flash, I have to consider how it's being used. And believe it or not, I associate Flash with the scent of information. What I need to know is, will it delay the scent of information? Will it hide the scent of information? Will it diminish the scent of information? Or, will it distract from information scent?

And if it does, one of those four things or maybe all four of them at the same time, I've actually seen that happen, how can I as a web developer minimize that or eliminate it completely? I think something I see in the search engines all the time is the search engines - especially in restaurant pages. Restaurant pages are the worst. I don't know why restaurant owners think having Flash as a design is a good idea. I think Flash is one of the worst choices for a restaurant.

But, I see these people click on a search listing and will give this as an expectancy test and then they'll see these beautiful images of mountains, and flowers, and the beach, and the sea and people have no clue what the site is about. It's a restaurant where they're interested in food.

Jared: Right.
Shari: They're interested in reservations and menus, and all those images as beautiful as they are, as wonderfully programmed as they are, don't communicate aboutness. So, people will actually abandon a lot of sites because they don't think they're at the right site and they really don't want to watch this beautifully executed Flash animation just to do something.

So, I always tell people to scale down the Flash movie. If it's that important to you, just scale it down. Make sure it doesn't take up the whole screen, but put the most important things people want on a restaurant site: reservations, menu, hours, and contact information. That would make your site so much user friendly and so much more search engine friendly. So, that's how I would address Flash.

Jared: I think that's a good approach. It feels to me like it really focuses back on if you really think about what people are coming to the site for and you really work to address that and you ask the question, is Flash the most efficient, effective way for us to get that content to those users, often the answer will be not so much, you know. It could make it snazzy, but is it effective useful way to get there. And can you have something that's snazzy that is also useful and effective. That's the really key piece of it. So, that I think makes a lot of sense.

Now, part of all of this has to do with things like alternative text and meta tags which a lot of people don't really know what they're about. What's the difference between alternative text and meta tags?

Shari: So, in the event that a graphic image does not load on a browser screen, the alternative text appears on its place; and alternative text doesn't matter for whether or not a web page, an HTML, XHTML page, ranks or not but it absolutely matters when you're talking about graphic image optimization in search engines.

So, alternative text is extremely important. Meta tags is an attribute of a file. You can put meta tags on an HTML document.

The most common ones we know are the keywords and description, and the author, and the copyright. But, you can also put meta tags inside of videos. You can put meta tags inside of audio files. Meta tags matter less for text based documents for search engines and the reason for that is search engines can extract information about your documents' contents, your web pages' contents and your PDFs and your Word files, then all those other text based files. That's how they determine that aboutness.

But, they can't really do that very well at this point in time for audio files and for video files. Meta tags matter for rankings more in non-text files than they do for text files. Going back to the graphic image web site, if you are only putting graphic images on your web pages, that's when the only text search engines have to go on as what you put in your meta tags and how other people describe your site's content.

But, alternative text is very specific to graphic images. Meta tags can be put in all different file types. Meta data is a very complex library science subject as I've learned.

Jared: Yeah. It seems like you could write - probably people have written entire books on meta data.

Hagan wanted to know if the Google and apparently search engines that other people use like the Yahoo and the Bing, do they each have their own style for looking at the stuff and, therefore, you have to optimize for all of them or you have to pick one you going to optimize for some crazy thing like that?

Shari: No. They basically treat them the same way. Every search engine is trying to be unique and I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to build one website for Google, and one website for Bing, and one website for a search engine that hasn't been invented yet. That's a tremendous amount of work. And I know people who actually make a living doing that. But, from our practical point of view, you don't want to do that and believe it or not, most of the engines treat them the same way.

Titles are hugely important across all the engines and this isn't something that's going to change anytime soon. I'm not just talking about titles on a web page, how you title your video files, how you title your audio files, how you title your web pages and your PDF documents, and your Word documents has a tremendous impact on whether the page is going to rank or not.

So, meta tags, not so important. Titles, hugely important. If I had all the time in the world, I would still do them both because meta tags descriptions are commonly used to display the aboutness of a web page in a search result in a snippet.

Jared: On a different topic, during the seminar, we got a lot of questions because you talked about pogo-sticking. And it turns out that not everybody knows what pogo-sticking is. When you talk about pogo-sticking, what are you referring to?
Shari: You coined the term. And...
Jared: Actually, it was Tara Scanlon who worked here for many years. When we talked about it, we're talking about jumping up and down in the site hierarchy. So, if you have a list of links on one page, let's say list of articles, clicking on each article to find the right one or clicking on each sweater to find the right sweater and jumping back and forth.

Now, what we found in our studies, let's say, e-commerce sites, was that the more people click back and forth, the less likely they would purchase something. That in fact, the majority of purchases happened, 66 percent, happened without any pogo-ticking at all which means people are getting enough information on the page that has the list of items to decide which one they want and if the most successful sites give that.

Now in the context of search, though, are you talking about pogo-sticking between the search engine results and the content? Or is it just once they get to the site?

Shari: No. We're actually on that same page about that because when Tara and you published articles about pogo-sticking on UIE. I jumped on that because to minimize pogo-sticking, related products pages should link to each other and related articles - let's say you have articles about a topic or virtual seminars about closely related topics. They should link to each other because from a search engine perspective, if you don't link pages to each other, you're essentially telling the search engines you don't think that content is important because you didn't link related pages to each other.

So, when you publish that on UIE about pogo-sticking, it actually supported something that I discovered back in the '90s, independently of that that we can minimize pogo-sticking and help search engine visibility at the same time. There was another connection I saw between website usability and search engine optimization.

So, I love that. I love a lot of your articles. The pogo-sticking ones is one of my favorites; five-second usability tests, of course, is one of my other favorites. But, now I'm actually talking about the same pogo-sticking you did.

Jared: OK. But, I'm just curious being that I brought up. Is there something that you want to do on your site to prevent people from hitting the back button and going back to the search results? Are there tricks there too?
Shari: It's basically, we call two things - one is orientation. Everybody orients. We don't think about it consciously. Everybody orients; not just on the website but everywhere. So, from a search engine, people are clicking on a link and they expect to be delivered to certain content. So, the domain name is something that's an orientation thing. Did I go to the website with the search engine set I was going to go to?

If you believe you are going to go to a section of a site, so let's say you are looking at a news website and you want an article about the science and technology, you want to highlight it that you are in the science and technology section; the breadcrumb link too if it's a locational breadcrumb link.

Orientation on a web page is very fast. It usually takes less than one second for a person to orient. And the more you make people focus on orienting, the less they are focused on completing their task. So, it's really important that the scent of information is maintained from search engines to search results page. And then there is scanning for the keywords. And that is something that will keep people on your site is how can people orient and validating their scent of information, which on a search engine happens to be keyword phrases. And also, if you are doing image search or multimedia search, such as video search, if a person clicks on a graphic image, they expect to see that graphic image on the page. If they click on a video, they expect to see that video on the page.

Jared: Right.
Shari: It's a big deal for people and they will complete a new search if they don't see their information scent validated. So, that's something that's really important to the search engines is making sure that the validation is there and, again, that's where Flash and graphic images can sometimes get sites in trouble, because it hides the information scent.
Jared: Yep, makes perfect sense. The folks over at SAP, Vancouver, wanted to know if there were any disadvantages to presenting headings as images, with alternative texts that of using HTML text.
Shari: Well, there is a difference between - I call it primary and secondary texts in search engines. And primary texts is texts that all of the search engines use to determine relevancy, and secondary text is what some search engines use to determine relevancy.

An alternative text is secondary text. And I mentioned this before that search engines don't use alt-text or alternative text to determine whether or not a page ranks, but they do use headings. As a general rule, I would tell you to do that.

But, there are instances where it's OK to do it as a graphic image. For example, a lot of sites, their headings don't consist of keywords at all. So, they might just have 'about us,' 'services,' 'solutions,' stuff like that, and those are really keywords that people type into search engines. So, the breadcrumb-link and maybe a subheading or the introductory paragraph, and the title tag might have those words. So, you could keep the generic or the general graphic images in that instance. But, if you want to give descriptive headings, then it's better off not to put that as a graphic image.

Jared: Oh, that's really interesting because, I think a lot of people realize that the heading text, the search engines really hone-in on that and pay close attention to it. If that is something that you want to factor into your page rank, by putting the graphic in its place and using alt-text for that, it sounds like you can basically shoot yourself in the foot.
Shari: Yeah, again, it depends on what's the content of the heading and it's not so much that it's formatted as a heading in HTML, it's more that it's the text at the top of the page. And also, if it's in HTML, it's an H1, Heading 1. And it's unique to the page, it's text at the top of the page, and H1 is usually formatted differently so that it looks like a heading. Every time we use the five second usability tests, and every time we test the orientation, people always mention the heading.
Jared: Right.
Shari: That's why I try to get web developers and content providers to just get in the habit of doing headings in this format. Now, not every heading on a web page is going to be incredibly descriptive. Privacy policy; how do you make privacy policy, more keyword lovely? You can't.

So, you can't do it on every page. But, then the pages that are the most important to you as a website owner, I would absolutely try that heading format or something we like to test all the time. So, we think, the larger font size, more white space, and a different font color, making that primary heading unique looking, really helps not just in search engine visibility but also website usability making people orient more quickly and complete their tasks more efficiently.

Jared: It feels to me like it's not just whether it's an image or not, but even just having words with that heading that are too clever, the marketing people or someone who's just got a flair for copywriting gets in there and decides to get all goofy in the heading, that can hurt you the same way, right? It's not telling the search engine what that page is about.
Shari: Exactly. And believe it or not, the worst culprits of this are journalists. [laughs]
Jared: Right, right. Well, because in journalism, to get people to buy a magazine, you are taught to make the title really specific and jump off the page and be something that is mysterious and attracts attention. And that doesn't necessarily work well in terms of helping people figure out what they are going to get when they click, and it doesn't help when people are working on making sure that the search engine knows what that page is about.
Shari: Yes, and then people complain - I hear this all the time. People complain about search engines. Search engines suck; my site search engine isn't accurate; the search engine must suck. And it's not always the search engine's fault. The people who are writing the content are not communicating aboutness. Now, I'm not saying that journalists and marketing people shouldn't use sales copy in their content, because you have to, in order to sell things. But, that doesn't mean exclude what people are searching for keywords trigger words.

When I train a lot of journalists, it's taking baby steps to them. You know, let's pick a keyword and get you in the habit of using that in your headline. Just that one, and let's go to two. And the brave ones can go for a three. And what happens all the time is that journalists notice, "Oh, my gosh! My article is appearing not only in Google News, it's also appearing in the Google main search results." And then more people are reading it and more people are linking to it, and they get excited and they start doing it more and more. And a lot of times, I'll see it more on a journalist's blog rather than the actual news site.

But, it's usually one or two that start seeing the results of that that it becomes wonderful to them, and then they get in the habit of writing the teaser types of headings and headlines along with something that makes that content easy to find via not only web search but also site search.

Jared: That makes sense; that absolutely makes sense. You can push this to an extreme. If you start taking those keywords, you start repeating them 7000 times on the page, some of the search engines will start to suspect that you're trying to spam them, right?
Shari: Yes.
Jared: Because that's one of the tricks that spammers use. And to that end, Ashley asked a question, which I thought was an interesting question, during the seminar. She asked "Do we get into trouble if we start doing things like repeating a call to action at the top and the bottom? Does that start to make the search engine bots a little suspicious that we're trying to spam them?"
Shari: Actually it doesn't. And it also depends on the size of the page. When I repeat calls to action at the top and the bottom of the page, most of the time I'm accommodating for scrolling when I optimize a web page. Especially on articles, because you'll want the call to action at the top of the page because you don't want people to have to scroll to see the call to action at the top of the page. But a lot of times, things like specifications and other kinds of product details, if people want to read them they have to scroll and then the call to action disappears.

So, at the bottom of the page, I'll just repeat, not the exact same content. I might say "For more information about blah-blah-blah, blah-blah-blah, and blah-blah-blah, please call us at da-da-da-da-da," and it's tailored for each page. So, if you're talking about a specific service, don't use that conclusion paragraph on a service that's unrelated.

So, it's not really a red flag just because you re-summarize. I like to think of it as an essay. I don't know about you, but I learned to optimize for search engines when I was 14. Because I had an English teacher that would give us a list of vocabulary words and we had to write an essay using all those vocabulary words properly. So, I learned how to write in keywords when I was 14. But, he also taught us when you write an essay you have an introduction and then the conclusion is re-summarizing your point of view and your content. It's the same thing.

Now, as somebody who usability tests, if I put that in front of users and they say "Oh, this site looks like it's been SEO-ed or search engine optimized to death," then it's probably overdone. But, for the most part, if you're just repeating something or re-summarizing something just because there's a little bit of scrolling, it's not hurting your site at all. And in fact I tend to encourage it rather than discourage it.

Jared: That makes perfect sense. During the seminar you talked in depth about the behavior that different types of searchers have. And one of the ones that you talked about was when people use what you called navigational searches. How do navigational searches work and what are some examples of that?
Shari: The reason they're called navigational searches is that people are using the search engines, like Google, to go to a specific website. And they're very, very common. I think they're far more common than people imagine. I think I've mentioned in the virtual seminar that Bing announced in Sweden that 33 percent of their search queries were navigational.

And this is really important to remember for search engine people because if keywords are navigational, people rarely look past positions one, two or three. So, if you're looking for User Interface Engineering, or UIE, this is the time when Google and Bing and Yahoo and whatever search engine comes into existence is going to keep your company name in the top positions.

Jared: I've seen people do this when we've been watching them work on site. And sometimes it's because they're not completely clear on the role of the different bubbles that you have in your browser. So, a lot of the browsers have a search bubble and they have a URL bubble at the top to type into. And people just, because they're so used to starting with searches, will just go in and type eBay into the Google search bubble instead of typing it into the URL. That works.

And then I guess, on the newer browsers and in the case of some of the ISPs, things go to search when you type them wrong. So, if it gets a "not found" it actually does a search on the URL to see if it can look for it and that would also end up that way.

So, this isn't just people being stupid and not understanding that they could use the browser URL instead of typing into their Google home page, if that's what it's set to. But, this is actually smart browser behavior accommodating different user activities.

Shari: And a lot of people, especially in mobile phones, or cell phones, people do not know where the search box and the address bar is. I mean, it's really interesting to see how people don't know what an address bar is. And they use the search engine to go to a site because it's just easier to type in eBay in Google than http://www.eBay.com.

And this is another reason that time spent on sites or time spent on search engines is an interesting metric because the idea behind the search engines, and especially with the navigational search, is to get you off of Google as quickly as possible.

Navigational searches are important. And one really good way to test your navigational searches is, for example, type in "five second usability test," and then do site:www.uie.com. If Google delivers you to that page or the pages that contain links related to it, you've accommodated not only navigational queries but informational queries as well. I know that's an advanced type search, but it really tells you if you're doing the aboutness correctly on your own website.

But, I think people should accommodate navigational searches. You asked for types, company names, abbreviations. So, for example, cancer.gov is the National Cancer Institute. Well, a lot of people don't know that, so what do they do? NCI.

Jared: Right. So, I just typed in Boston University, whose website is bu.edu. I typed that into the Google, and it came back with the top link was Boston University and then underneath that it has a bunch of links that it's gotten from their page: Undergraduate, Graduate, Athletics, Degree Programs. And it even has a little search box that you can type in, "Search bu.edu," so I can look for something specific. Do you have any idea where Google gets those subheadings?
Shari: Those are called site links. And Google will not tell, it's their proprietary algorithm. But, if you login to their Webmaster Central, if there is something that you don't want to appear in site links, you can tell Google that and those items won't appear in site links any more.

A lot of it has to do with how you link to the main sections of your site and how others link to your website.

Jared: So, they're looking at search behavior and they're trying to push that stuff up.
Shari: Mm-hmm. And site links are a huge indication - and I said this in the webinar - of navigational intent. So, in your head, if you see site links appear, go "those keywords might be navigational." And they're huge.

Another indication of a navigational search is if somebody types in a top level domain extension. So a .edu or a .com. A lot of people what they do because they don't remember the domain name, they don't remember if it's .edu or .gov or .com or .net or .org, what they'll do is they'll just type in the first part of the URL and they'll get a list of them and then they'll click on the one that they want.

Parts of domains is an indication of a navigational search because a person wants to go to a specific website. That's how people should remember navigational searches. People want to go to a specific website via the commercial web search engines.

Jared: That makes perfect sense to me. Well, Shari, thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions. And I want to let everybody know that if you haven't yet, you should go listen to her virtual seminar, "When Search Meets Web Usability." And you should also go and buy the fabulous book by that same title that she co-wrote with Nick Musica because both those things will teach you quite a bit about this.

Shari, thank you for taking the time.

Shari: Thank you.
Jared: And I want to thank everyone again, one more time for encouraging our behavior and we'll talk to you next time. Thank you all very much.