Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has long been viewed as one of the most important factors in determining the success of online companies and their websites. Leading tools, such as MOZ, and their suite of products, would facilitate SEO professionals diving into the depths of search engine results and pulling out valuable nuggets of SEO gold that could then be applied to their website in order to climb up the search rankings.
Traditionally SEO work has involved looking at large sets of in-personal data, usually mined from Google Analytics and/or it’s general rankings. The problem – often this information lacks color. You can see the ‘what’ but it’s not always clear why the users are thinking and acting like they are.
SEFUS… ah … gazoontite?
This is where Search Engine Findability User Studies (SEFUS) come in and save the day.
Think of it kind of like user testing but instead of focusing on the usability of a product, the studies are focused on setting the participant(s) a task to find some information online, via a search engine, and then watching and listening to what they do.
Here’s a real word example.
Pretend you owned a health and fitness website and you wanted to understand how people think about searching for protein drink supplements. You could set the following task for participants:
Task: Imagine that you are interested in finding supplements that could aid in the training you do at the gym. Using Google.com, search for products which you believe might help you and visit the website which seems most relevant.
Here is a participant video based on the above task:
As you can see from the video, we can see and hear exactly what the participant is thinking, how they decide to enter their first keyword search, and then why they decide to change it and do a second search. Tools like Google Analytics are great at showing you the keywords visitors have used when they reach your website, but they don’t necessarily show you the keywords visitors are entering which don’t result in visits to your website.
You can also see and hear why they chose the result they end up clicking on. Most, if not all, of this motivation based information is not available to you through traditional SEO tools.
Imagine now that you ran 30 participants through this findability study. You’d gain some invaluable insights into consumer thinking, couple this with quantitative data you get in tools like Loop11, such as page views and clickstreams, and you have a treasure trove insight which you can feed back into your SEO work.
Level Up Your SEFUS
When creating the study you do not have to stop at just tasks, rather, you can combine the results you get from the tasks with follow-up questions that allow you to dive deeper into understanding your customers. Questions like:
- How satisfied are you that you found a website relevant to what you were searching for?
- What was the reason you selected the website in the Google search results?
- Did the website meet your expectations based on the text in the Google link?
The best bit though is that Search Engine Findability User Studies can, and should, be used hand in hand with tools like MOZ and Google Analytics. Think of the findability studies as ‘discovery’ research which allows you to really get inside the head of your customer. Then the other tools provide validation for whether what you are trying is working for you.
Evaluation Your Search Listing Text
Another great way of using Search Engine Findability User Studies is giving participants a series of tasks, each with a specific keyword or phrase. Then, have them enter the keyword(s) into Google and ask them to visit the link which seems most relevant based on their search.
As long as you conceal your company/website identify then the results should be unbiased and you’ll be able to see which listing items stand out to the participants. This will in turn help you refine your page(s) content, TITLE and META Tags so they are more appealing to search users, resulting in more click throughs to your website.
Mobile vs Desktop, Location vs Location
Search Engine Findability User Studies are also great for comparing search behavior when participants are on mobile versus desktop, or if they are in one locations versus another. We’re all savvy enough to realize that search results are different based on many different factors, however, most of us would admit to being at least a little unsure of exactly how things change. Testing the same tasks but on different devices and participants in different States or Countries will help paint a clearer picture for you.
For example, you may find that you need to change your strategy when targeting mobile users, or potentially add some more geographically specific content in order to capture visitors searching for location specific services.
Extending Beyond the Search Results
During a study, ask the participants to perform a follow-up task such as find information on the website(s).
This is of course the second, and often forgotten, component of SEO. Getting visitors to your website is one thing, but if they can’t find the information they are after then they cannot be converted into a paying customer.
What’s interesting is you can also set task success URLs. So, if you started participants on Google.com and gave them a task to perform with keyword(s) to use, you could quickly and easily see task success rates based around what percentage of participants reach your success URLs, how long it took them, and how many pages they visited on their path to the final page.
For example, start a participant on Google.com, give them the keyword “protein supplements” then, as long as your website appears somewhere in the search results, set a desired ‘success URL’ on your website. Reporting for this kind of study will show what percentage of participants are clicking on your link and arriving at your website, and then secondly, how many are reaching your desired success URL.
Knowing this type of information helps you develop a cohesive SEO and information architecture strategy, plus it ensures you do not have a leaky funnel that is only partially optimized for visitor conversion.
Spy On The Competition
For those of you who haven’t already keyed on to this fact… you can do all of this testing on your competitor’s websites as well. These tactics aren’t just for optimizing your own search strategy, it’s also for discovering what is working for your competition and then taking advantage of this knowledge to rocket above them in the rankings.
If you have any other ideas about how to use user testing to inform your SEO strategy then add them to the comments, we’d love to hear them.