“Findability precedes usability in the alphabet and on the Web. You can’t use what you can’t find.”—Peter Morville, in Ambient Findability
Usability testing is a common approach for assessing the performance of websites and applications. However, one important aspect of user experience that traditional testing does not address is assessing the path to a website. Responsibility for this has typically fallen into the domain of search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM)—and often, the person who looks after those concerns is not the same person who is ultimately responsible for a website’s or application’s user experience.
Recently, Jeff Sauro wrote an article titled “How to Measure Findability.” His article explains a process for measuring the findability of items on a website. In contrast, website findability (or search engine findability) is about measuring the ease with which people can find your website, as well as understanding the paths they take to it.
In this article, I’d first like to explain the importance of search engine findability in managing a successful website, then describe my approach to website findability, and demonstrate why I think this approach is a valuable addition to research methods like usability testing and web analytics.
The Limitations of Web Analytics in Determining Findability
Web analytics do not show the keywords of those who searched, but did not find your website.
Web analytics can provide a lot of information, including how people enter a website – whether directly or from a referring site or search engine – which pages are the top entry pages, and which keywords people have used to get to the site. But what about all of the keywords that people have used to look for your product or service with a search engine whose results didn’t include your website? Web analytics cannot tell you this.
Web analytics provide only the keywords that were used by people who actually visited your site – typically, keywords that your own SEO and SEM efforts have generated. Web analytics do not show the keywords of those who searched, but did not find your website.
Finding Out What Keywords Searchers Use
Experimentally conducting searches yourself shows only how well you’re able to find your site using the keywords you can think of. Other people would probably search using different keywords – especially those who are not familiar with your company or its jargon or perhaps don’t know a lot about your products or services.
Imagine if you were able to gather the keywords of all searchers to refine and improve your SEO and SEM campaigns. Your website would no doubt receive many more visitors.
So, the question is: how can you find out the keywords that were used by people who searched for, but did not find your website? Conduct a website findability study.
Conducting a Website Findability Study
How can you find out the keywords that were used by people who searched for, but did not find your site? Conduct a website findability study.
When my company recently ran a website findability study online, using Loop11, we explored the different keywords that people might use when looking for a credit card provider and investigated just how people use search engines when they want to obtain a new credit card. Here is the process we followed for our study.
Step 1: Finding Out What Search Terms People Use
Following the introduction and instructions pages, our study began with the open question shown in Figure 1, asking participants to list the search terms that they would use if they were looking for a company that could provide a credit card that would meet their own current needs.
Figure 1—What search terms would a participant use?
The responses to this question provided a list of the search terms that participants would use to complete this task.
You’ll probably find a few terms that you hadn’t thought people would use to find your product or service. These are the keywords that are likely to transform the success of your SEO and SEM campaigns.
In studies that you run, you’ll likely find that many of the keywords participants use are ones you’re already targeting in your SEO and SEM campaigns. But you’ll probably find a few surprises, too – terms that you hadn’t thought people would use to find your product or service. These are the keywords that are likely to transform the success of your SEO and SEM campaigns, because it is just as unlikely that your competitors are targeting them.
Step 2: Searching for a Service Provider
Once participants had answered our initial question, the only task we asked them to perform in this study was to use Google, shown in Figure 2, or another search engine to conduct a search for a credit card provider.
Figure 2—Searching for a credit card provider on Google
Loop11 tracked the behavior of each participant – from performing a search on the search engine’s home page to viewing the results on a search results page, then navigating to any websites that a participant decided to visit. Our study elected to record video and audio, so the full recordings of each participants navigating from Google to the search results page (including the search terms they used) and further were all recorded for later playback.
Most of the time during usability studies, usability professionals observe and collect data about the behavior of participants who are already on and using a particular website. In contrast, the data that you can collect through this type of search task can help you to determine just how findable your website is and illustrate the sometimes convoluted journeys people take just to find your website. In the studies we have run, the results have been incredibly insightful.
Step 3: Asking Follow-Up Questions
After participants had completed the search task, we asked them a number of follow-up questions, as follows:
- What was the name of the financial institution that offered a credit card that best met your current needs?
- What was the reason you selected this company over others that appeared in the search results?
- On a scale of zero to ten, how likely is it that you would recommend this company to a friend or colleague?
Step 4: Calculating a Net Promoter Score
The results of Question 3, in combination with the results of Question 1, gave us the ability to calculate a Net Promoter Score (NPS) for each financial institution that participants mentioned in Question 1.
An NPS is a metric that you can use to gauge the loyalty of a firm’s customer relationships. This metric provides an alternative to asking traditional customer-satisfaction questions. Based on participants’ responses to your questions, you can categorize people as belonging to one of three groups: Promoters (9–10 rating), Passives (7–8 rating), and Detractors (0–6 rating) This helps you to measure customer satisfaction.
Implementing changes to your SEO and SEM campaigns according to the findings of a website findability study should result in a substantial increase in the qualified traffic to your or your client’s website.
The results of a website findability study will give you some insights – possibly some unexpected insights – into the process people go through when trying to locate a website or application.
Although your website visitors represent just a fraction of the searchers who need the service that you provide, website findability studies can help you to discover many more of the keywords that spring to users’ minds when they create their search queries. Implementing changes to your SEO and SEM campaigns according to the findings of a website findability study should result in a substantial increase in the qualified traffic to your or your client’s website.
Although usability professionals generally focus on people’s experience when they’re already on a website, I believe website findability studies would be a valuable addition to the research methods that we currently employ in managing a successful website.
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