Website Spider and Visitor Usability

In this article we are going to discuss spider and visitor website usability issues. Luckily for us, both search engine spiders and human visitors have similar preferences, and are quite easy to satisfy. Before we get deeply into what you should be doing, though, let’s start with some examples of what you shouldn’t be doing.

Bad Examples of Usability

The examples below are from 2008. I’ve never been to web design school, but from the examples below I get the feeling that universities and colleges are not doing their jobs. The sites below were either done by amateurs or web designers who picked the wrong profession. Go to those sites and try getting ANYWHERE. It’s a hassle. Keep mental notes and make sure you AVOID those crimes against usability.

  • http://www.torchia.com/ – Their motto is "A direct line to functional design." That’s quite ironic. The company does architecture, and I’m sure they do a good job, but once I got to their site, the question that popped into my head was – WTF? Not only is their navigation practically unusable, they use flash, which is bad for search engine spiders.

  • http://www.wherever.com/ – Another great example of what NOT to do, and strangely, another architecture site. I’ll be surprised if they paid some designer for this. The company wanted to be "classy" and cute, but they bombed any chances online as a result. They also use flash. When you first load the site, all you see is one word, "Medium," from which you’re supposed to figure out that hovering over it will bring up minimalist navigation. Are they trying to hide something?

  • http://www.havenworks.com/ – My eyes started to hurt after 0.5 seconds on that site. The colors are way too bright and there’s way too much clutter. In general their site would be pretty usable if they cleaned up their color schemes and worked on fonts and backgrounds. There’s a lesson to learn from this site: keep your colors conservative.

  • http://www.jerde.com/ – This site is pretty easy to get used to if you’re a savvy person who spends a lot of time on the web. The problem with it is that it’s format is so radically different from basic usability standards that an average non-savvy user will have a very hard time figuring it out. The ultimate verdict is the "back button." Lesson – keep basic usability standards in mind. There are no rules in web design, but there are formats recognized by everyone. No surprise here, this site also uses flash.

  • http://www.alternativetransportservices.co.uk/ – This one gets a big LOL. Check out their opening paragraph "Get up offa that thing and feel FUNKY…its the sexy cheap van hire and removal taxi man machine now !! for moVing it and grooVing it… ShaKe that moNey BABY!! The way you would like it, is the way it is CAN YOU FEEL GOOD?? FOR INFO CALL THE CHEAP NATIONAL VAN TRANSPORT FLEEL GOOD HOT LINE TODAY on 01554 81 11 11.

    HUH? Dude… what are you talking about? Let’s not judge that company; maybe this is their approach to being different. The lesson here is, use proper English when speaking to your readers; if they can’t read your site, they can’t use it. Also keep in mind that search engines have spell checkers in them, and if they see some really weird words all around your site, they will consider them to be spelling mistakes. Still, I have to give credit to those guys, since whoever is in charge of that site is obviously enjoying it, and that’s something worth learning from them.

Design a website using one of the widely accepted formats. Those formats usually include navigation areas, a header, content area and a footer. It’s pretty straightforward. The key to remember is this: think of your main navigation as a SECONDARY way to navigate your website. The PRIMARY navigation tool is links within content.

When a visitor lands on a website, he focuses on the CONTENT area. Once a user finishes scanning content, he naturally looks for links to continue his exploration. If the content offers no links, he explores the site’s navigation. The problem with the navigation area is that it usually has many links, many of which are unrelated to the topic in which the user is interested. This slows down the user’s browsing process and wastes precious seconds. If it takes too long to find content of further interest (even if there’s plenty of it, but it’s hard to get to it), users hit the back button and webmasters see a nasty 60% + bounce rate.

On the other hand, if you use the content area as the PRIMARY navigation, you can guide visitors to different content sections without any distractions to the overall flow. Check out seobook.com – it does a great job of using content as the navigation area. Notice how many links there are within content.

Of course this works for search engine spiders as well, because spiders love keyword-rich content links.

Text Formatting

The question is not whether visitors read web pages or scan pages, but how little do they actually read and how much do they actually scan. Jakob Neilsen has a great article titled "How Little Do Users Read?" In summary he states:

"On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely."

To increase the chances of users reading your pages, use 2 – 4 sentences per paragraph, bullets and headlines. Text formatting has little effect on search engines, but it helps readers. Look at the way this article is formatted; it’s very easy to scan.

JavaScript

Search engines have gotten better at JavaScript, especially Google, but to be on the safe side, avoid using it too much. Many JavaScript perks can be achieved with CSS. If you are going to use JavaScript, put it into a separate file to minimize page load time.

Web Design Consistency

Visitors expect to see things in the same places. If you switch things often, they’ll get confused and look upon the site negatively. Search engines see websites as code, so design consistency is not an issue with bots.

 

Keep File Size Small

Both search engines and visitors love pages that are small in size and quick to load. Optimize images where possible. Put CSS in a separate file.

Search Engine

If your website is pretty big, include an internal search engine. Check out Google Custom Search.

Information Scent

Brian and Jeffrey Eisenberg talk of information scent. Their theory (proven by practice) states that people are like bloodhounds. We pick up the scent of information and follow it until we find the information we want.

"As we scour about, trying to figure out how to frame and solve our problems, we become like bloodhounds. We try to pick up the scent of an associative trail that will lead us to the information we want. And when that scent evaporates, we begin to lose interest in the trail. If the scent dries up, we disconnect." – Waiting for Your Cat Bark

That information scent is represented by KEYWORDS. When we search for "California mortgage broker" on Google, we NATURALLY look for that exact phrase in search results. We scan the headlines and select the one that closely matches the phase. We also scan snippets of the pages featured in search results and look for the phrase.

Once we land on the website from the search results, we again look for the information scent in the form of keywords. The best way to show visitors they’re on the right track is to feature keywords in the headline in the opening paragraph. Luckily, the information scent principle simply means following good SEO practices, so by including keywords in prominent places, you make search engine spiders and visitors happy.

Also notice that when search results are hollow, you naturally pay more attention to the listings with bolded keywords and consider them more relevant. Those listings are more likely to get your click.

If you can, stay away from flash websites. They are a hassle for both users and search engine spiders. Here are some nasty facts about flash:

  • Search engines still have trouble extracting content from flash websites and ranking separate pages. Though it’s possible to rank a flash site, it’s harder to do.

  • Flash sites miss on long tail keywords which deliver up to 30%-60% of visitors, because their content is usually invisible.

  • Users can’t bookmark a page.

There are two types of flash variations. One has a clear URL structure, one does not. For example, if you browse the flash website examples from the first page of this article you will see that when you click on "about us" or "contact us," the URL in the address bar does not change. This means that search engines cannot direct visitors to specific pages even if they learn to read flash better.

Other flash sites do have a clear URL structure, so for example, when you click on the "about us" link, the URL in address bar changes to site.com/about-us. It’s more expensive to do this though.

Generally, flash websites have very poor usability. It’s best to stay away from building this kind of site.

Jacob’s AlertBox

If you’re interested in website usability, I highly recommend useit.com, run by Jacob Nielsen. He is recognized as a leader in usability and charges hefty fees for his knowledge. Luckily, much of that knowledge is available on his website for free.

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