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The Interchange of Search and Use

Is there an interchange between search engine optimization (more accurately, internet marketing) and usability? That’s the question veteran SEO Grant Crowell asked Jared Spool, a veteran usability engineer, in a twenty minute phone interview.

Grant Crowell of Grantastic Designs enaged Jared Spool on the topic in late November of 2007, and shared it with the LED Digest this week. The topic at hand was the interchange between search and usability. Grant highlights the major content of the talk in his post to the LED Digest, which is well worth a read.

After listening to the podcast (directly below these comments), here are my thoughts:

  • Spool doesn’t feel there’s any issue here, in terms of search versus usability. I tend to agree, and like his analogy of baseball: what’s better, a second baseman or a pitcher? The question is meaningless.
  • That said, I think usability engineers tend to discount internet marketing (they discount SEO in particular), and Spool displays this habit. (To be fair, SEOs tend to discount usability too, so it works both ways.) I don’t think there’s an issue between either SEO or usability – I agree that’s meaningless. But there is an issue here – an important one. Spool hits it dead on later in the interview.
  • The issue is that reaching out with internet marketing (I’ll just call it SEO) really only works if you’ve got a good, usable site on the other end. Spool touched on this when he spoke to “designing for the whole experience” from how a site appears in the SERPs, to how it appears in a user’s browser, to making it easy for visitors to share your site’s content.
  • There’s another important issue here as well. How do people use search engines? Their (our) behaviour is complex and multiform, but what can be counted on are things like opening links in new windows but keeping them in the background, opening links then quickly going back to the SERP, opening a new page and bookmarking it for later, quickly glancing at results for anticipated words in bold, etc. There’s a school of thought for these types of behaviors (with terms like berry picking and pogo sticking and scanning and foraging), and they’re crucial to usability. They’re also crucial to SEO. Being familiar with different types of search behaviours can be a powerful aid in an online strategy.

Spool said it very well: we need to approach the web as an entire experience. It’s reaching out and promoting your site so people know about it, it’s optimizing it to be found, it’s running ads on search engines for placement. It’s designing good, highly usable sites, doing testing and research, adding functionality. It’s all important and it all works together.

It’s going to get harder to compete online by doing “just enough.” Thinking of a web site as being part of a topical web experience changes the perspective a ton, and reveals usability and SEO as specific tools within the same tool box. A hammer isn’t better than a screwdriver, is it? They’re tools that do the same thing: build something. It’s the same with usability and SEO.

Check out the interview:
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  • Adam Audette
    Adam Audette is the Chief Knowledge Officer of RKG.
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