Usability, SEO And The Modern Day Internet Marketing Professional

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This is not an article about internet marketing. Nor is it an article about the use of social media for internet marketing. Much has been said about that already. Rather, this is my personal take on how the evolution of the internet marketing professional has created a demand for a skill set that was not previously associated with the job.

The Internet Marketing Professional & Search Engines

The Internet Marketing Professional & Search Engines
An observation of the most recent updates on the Google algorithm, dubbed Penguin reveals how the natural evolution of search engines, in this case, Google are including changes that ultimately improve user experience. This trend is a continuation of the changes introduced way back in February 2011 with the Panda update – whose main objective was to downrank websites that provided poor user experience.

It is thus clear that Google, and all major search engines recognize the importance of promoting high quality web pages that are likely to contain the content that their users are searching for. This makes sense on many levels.

From a business model perspective, this makes perfect sense: good search results = satisfied users = more traffic = increase in popularity of the search engine. Since the main income of search engines is advertising and given that the likelihood of adverts being seen or clicked on is more or less proportional with traffic, high quality results in the Search Engine Result Page (SERP) is a must. It is thus clear that some knowledge (and by some I mean as much as possible) of SEO is necessary. I am not implying that the internet marketing professional must be proficient at SEO. Some will argue that it is after all an IT task. This, my dear readers is where the problems start creeping in. We are speaking about an internet marketing professional.

The Internet Marketing Professional’s Clients

What many fail to take heed of is that the modern day internet marketing professional has two types of clients – the human client and the search engine. It is true that with the latest changes in the algorithms of major search engines, there is an overlap in what can be termed as good usability and search engine practices.

For example having a descriptive page title that contains keywords from the content of that specific page will help a website rank in the SERP for those keywords. At the same time, this SEO optimized title is useful for users because when scanning the SERP results, they are more likely to make an informed decision as to which link they will choose. Also from a usability point of view, if a user bookmarks that website, the default name that is assigned by all web browsers is the page title. This would obviously make it easier for that user to locate a website from the list of bookmarks, especially if he or she has saved more than one web page from the same site.

The Internet Marketing Professional & SEO

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From personal experience, I think that we are still living in a time where the person who is developing or maintaining a website needs to keep in mind the search engine. This is because search engine optimized code is still a major driving force in SERP ranking.

Take for example images. With Google’s blended search, where image, video and content appear on the same SERP, images rank better if the image name is descriptive and each of its words is separated by a hyphen. This is because even though Google is investing in image parsing technology, it is still not able to understand the content of an image. Thus it resorts to the image filename as well as the image alt and title attributes. Out of these 3, only the title attribute is visible to the human user (and only on image hover). The image filename can only be seen if the image is saved or if the user inspects the code. On the other hand, the image alt attribute is only seen if the image is missing or if the user is making use of a screen reading software. Thus, from this simple example, it can be seen that out of 3 search engine ranking factors, only 1 overlaps with improving the user experience (or 2 if the user is using screen reading technology).

The Internet Marketing Professional & Usability

I like to express the relationship between usability and SEO as one of a complementary nature. Good SEO is what will get you visitors to your website but it is ultimately good usability that will keep them there.

The modern day internet marketing professional needs to understand usability. Why? Because usability is all about making it easier for the users to achieve their objectives when using a website. Very often the users’ goals and those of the company that the internet marketing professional is representing are very closely aligned. Let us take a simple example. Suppose the internet marketing professional is employed with an airline company. The main objective of the airline’s website is to get online bookings. There are secondary objectives of course such as the provision of information about the airline, flight details etc. Let us focus on the main objective. The user who will make use of the company’s website will use it primarily to book flights. Therefore the degree to which the airline company’s website is deemed as usable is affected by how easy, intuitive and pleasant it makes it for the user to book a flight.

It is thus very clear that marketing and usability share a very common basis – they both exist to satisfy the user’s need/s. The third element in the equation is the user interface. This is what brings everything together. SEO, on the other hand is what brings users in the first place. It is what makes the site found.

Becoming a better Internet Marketing Professional

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So from where should one start? I always like the traditional perspective and recommend a good introductory book since this will provide a great overview of the subject area and is ideal to set up a strong foundation on which to build further knowledge. There are obviously many good books for both usability and SEO.

For usability i would recommend Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability and Jakob Nielsen’s “Prioritizing Web Usability“.

Next thing is keeping up to date with the industry and the best way to do this is via blogs and social media. There are various usability experts on Twitter such as Jared Spool, Nick Finck, Craig Tomlin, Jan Jursa, and the Nielsen Norman Group among others. I myself am particularly active on Twitter too (hint, hint). Another Twitter technique I like to use is to use TweetDeck and create columns that filter tweets by hashtags such as #usability, #ux and so forth.

There are of course LinkedIn groups such as UIDG – User Interface Designers Group, UEXdesign – User EXperience Design , UsabilityMatters.Org among others.

In a way, it also boils down to the learning preference of the individual in the sense that whilst some people prefer an academic approach to learning, others opt for a more practical approach. For the former, a subscription to academic journals such as the ACM or IEEE would be most advisable. On the other hand, the more practical-oriented individuals would opt for reading real case studies. Thus blogs such as Smashing Magazine and the Usabilla Blog would be more suited to help them jump into the usability.

As for SEO, again, there are excellent books but two books that I would recommend and which are for beginners are The Art of SEO and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Secrets

As for SEO blogs I would definitely recommend SEOMoz, SearchEngineWatch and SearchEngineLand. Whilst search engines have their own official blogs (Google, Bing), I would also advise to watch out for their employees’ “unofficial” blogs – most notably that of Google’s head of web spam Matt Cutts.

Discussion boards such as Quora and ExpertsExchange are also an ideal way to follow developments, hot topics and identify influential people in both usability and SEO.

Practice is what ultimately makes perfect. If you are not doing the job, then work closely with the people or the agency doing it. One word of warning. Be prepared for contradictions. SEO is primarily in the domain of Google which ultimately owns the algorithm which defines the ranking order of its search results. Whilst Google and some of its prominent employees do hint at what these best practices are, these are very often answered ambiguously. So, much of the information that is available is either subjective or is backed up by experimental data.

To a certain extent, the same happens in the domain of usability. Whilst much of the theory has been available way prior to the internet, much remains the subject of experimental data. Like the domain of SEO, there are some dominant key-players in the sector, such as Jakob Nielsen and Jared Spool. While most of the information available is presented out of goodwill, one must still read everything objectively. Several usability professionals make their income from consultancy projects and while some provide information in order to give something back to the community, others may provide information as a basis to establish their authority in order to attract consultancy work.

Conclusion

The word of warning that I expressed with regards to other experts in the fields of usability and SEO applies in my case too. What you have read just now is my take on the subject. It is true that it is backed up by education and a number of years of offering consultancy in the internet marketing and usability sector. Still it is based on my personal opinion. However, i hope that i have given you some useful ideas on how you can dive and excel in the dynamic sector the modern-day internet marketing professional.

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