Google Analytics' graphical representation of visitor flow

Google Analytics’ graphical representation of visitor flow

Soon, you’re going to hear a lot more about why web site usability is the new black.

Usability enjoyed a bright but brief heyday in the early 2000s as people realized that they could make web sites that looked better than black type with blue links on a white page. Unfortunately, usability was stomped on by the rapid rise of search engine optimization in 2003 or so.

These days, the word “usability,” instead of great design, conjures up thoughts of accessibility by blind or physically challenged people. Very important, and it deserves its own term — say, “accessibility”?

Web 2.0, a term first coined in 1999, was not about web technology but instead about (or supposed to be about)

information sharinginteroperabilityuser-centered design, and collaboration on the World Wide Web. A Web 2.0 site allows users to interact and collaborate with each other in a social media dialogue as creators (prosumers) of user-generated content in a virtual community, in contrast to websites where users (consumers) are limited to the passive viewing of content that was created for them. Examples of Web 2.0 include social networking sitesblogswikisvideo sharing sites, hosted servicesweb applicationsmashups and folksonomies. (Wikimedia)

But somehow “user-centered design” was thrown under the bus in favor of making a page that ranked high in search engine results (SERPs). The lack of focus on user-centered design must have made Jakob Nielsen (http://www.useit.com) crazy. Now there’s a whole bizarre industry, completely non-homogeneous, trying to sell SEO snake oil to companies more than willing to pay for it.

I still hear people bandying about the terms “black hat” (underhanded, web illegal) and “white hat” (legitimate) search engine optimization. I love organic search engine optimization as much or more than the next person, but I think this concentration on SEO is misplaced.

The point is about whether a high-ranking site really serves the customers it attracts. You can have all the links in the world, and rank on page 1 of Google, and still NOT be helping your audience find what it’s really looking for.

  1. Do high-ranking web sites keep the visitors they attract?
  2. If not, where (and why) do visitors leave the web site?

Shortly, SEO trending will be a thing of the past. SEO will always be important. It just won’t be the end-all, be-all focus anymore. SEO will be a given. Good design (which includes usability) will trend to the top.

Good design may well become Web 3.0.

In good design, customers who are pulled to a web site follow a path or paths well thought out for them, designed to further persuade or instruct.

  • An orange juice company keeps you thirsty enough to click to a coupon.
  • A shoe company entrances you with cowboy boots so that learning about how they’re made and by whom (not to mention the groovy photos) is as sexy as the $525 charge you eventually (gratefully) make on the web site. You want to be as cool as those boots.
  • A bed and breakfast seduces you with local history and the promise of your own historical discoveries, while enticing you with lodging that helps you better understand and appreciate history.

I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t wonderful web companies out there planning and executing well-optimized and well-designed web sites with brilliant insight into navigability and usability. Of course there are.

But they’re fewer and further between that you’d think. And they’re not for the masses, the many small- and medium-sized companies that could really benefit from great web strategy.

If you compare web site sophistication to that of television advertising, you realize that the former is sorely lacking in the ability to use the tools at hand to create the most powerful web site design, whereas TV commercials have kept current with their ability to exploit every tool at their disposal. Sure, there are flops in the commercial world. But when was the last time you stood around the water cooler discussing how cool a web site is? They’re not on the same level (yet) as their TV commercial counterparts.

We’re still, as a culture, held captive by people trained in coding, CSS, and sometimes a great design — but no one is really steering the navigability (ahem). In more cases than not, clients are still providing their own copy to web designers who simply make it look good, or not even. Navigation is blah, and mostly expected (“About” and “Contact us,” for instance).

And frankly, why not? Most small- to medium-sized businesses assume they can get a fabulous web site for $5,000 or less. Soon, that will change as well, as the curtain goes up on Web 3.0. What can really happen when all of the tools — from copy to design to usability to interactivity — are actually in play? We’re going to find out.

In the meantime, pay close attention to your analytics. Google Analytics recently added the ability to graphically visualize how visitors move through your web site. It’s called Visitors Flow. It’s brilliant. If you’ve paid attention to bounce rate, this goes far beyond.

Visitor Flow shows exactly how your audience streams through your web site, and exactly where they tend to fall off, down to the very last one. Many well-optimized pages lose most of their traffic by the second page, without any conversion to, well, whatever you want your audience to find — a white paper, a buy button, or a newsletter subscription, for example. Is this “falling off” happening to YOUR web site? Do you know why?

Web site usability is the new black

by susan time to read: 4 min
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