Why SEOs should be conducting user testing research | White.net

Why SEOs should be conducting user testing research

By Rachel McCombie / January 17, 2012

‘Build websites for users, not search engines’ is the advice continually propounded by insiders at Google. As SEOs, we’re used to looking at websites and analysing how they would be viewed by a search engine. In actual fact, though, there’s a fairly big overlap between what’s helpful for a user and what’s helpful for a search engine, and the user and search engine experiences can often mirror each other. That means that it’s often worth carrying out user testing research in the initial stages of your SEO project to gain valuable insights into how real visitors view and use your site.

User testing isn’t just about usability for humans or identifying bugs; parts of your website that are difficult to use can hide potential SEO problems that you may not have spotted. User testing can help shed light on the user behaviour behind the dry metrics you see in Google Analytics, and its benefits in conversion rate optimisation are obvious. It’s also worth noting that if your client is taking some convincing that they should make a change to their website for SEO reasons, having concrete evidence from the word of users’ mouths might prove more persuasive.

User testing research takes people from your website’s demographic and gives you the benefit of several fresh pairs of eyes to enable you to see your website (or your client’s) as your target audience sees it. Sure, it can only ever be a small sample size, but the insights you can gain from user testing can nevertheless be valuable. Here are just a few of the issues and insights we’ve uncovered with user testing for some of our clients…

High bounce rate
The reason for a high bounce rate isn’t always immediately obvious – particularly if you’ve viewed that site many times and have become, as it were, ‘immune’ to it. I conducted user testing research for one of my clients and it transpired that, upon viewing the homepage for the first time, users weren’t immediately sure what that my client’s site was actually about. This was mainly because the imagery on the homepage was misleading, and the headings on the page weren’t obvious either. If users are having problems figuring out what a site is about, the chances are that Google spiders are too. We’d spotted the lack of optimised headings, but the wider issue of the imagery was only identified by getting real users’ first impressions. Whether bounce rate has any meaningful impact on rankings is beyond the scope of this post, but I’m sure you catch my drift.

High time on site
Similarly, if people are spending a lot of time on your site, you can only really speculate as to why. Is it because they’re are engaging more with your content? Or is it actually because they can’t find what they’re looking for? User testing may be able to help you find out.

Keywords are friendly to users, not just search engines…
…Otherwise why would people type them in? Keywords are revealing about user behaviour, and search volumes for differently worded search terms are revealing about how people think. We’re obviously used to optimising header tags to target keywords, but this can often have benefits to users, too – because keywords can give them a clearer idea of what each section of a site will be about (e.g. “our products” versus “shoes for sale”). Within reason, using keywords to help your users find their way around your site makes sense, and helps avoid confusion over the purpose of the site (which was something user testing highlighted for one of our clients).

Hiding content behind registration
A lengthy registration process for one client highlighted the issues surrounding hiding content behind a log-in. During user testing, users were frustrated by the number of details they had to provide to get at the full-length content, and one even said that if he hadn’t been paid to look at the site, he’d have given up long before he got to the end of the process. So the issue of content being hidden went beyond an SEO issue and it became a possible conversion rate problem. In an ideal world, we’d have liked to have seen all that content immediately in the public domain, for both users and search engines; this not being possible for legal reasons, we recommended a simplified sign-up process and optimisation of the visible content instead.

So how does one conduct user testing research? We’ve used http://www.usertesting.com/, which costs $39 per user and allows you to set your target demographic and specific instructions/tasks that you want users to accomplish (e.g. find a particular product or page). You get a video of the user’s screen as they navigate your site, and a soundtrack of their voice commenting on what they see. This sort of insight obviously delves deeper than dry metrics, user journeys and even heatmaps, because you get explanations rather than straightforward identification of patterns.

Have you conducted user testing research? Did you find it helpful, and did it uncover anything you’d not spotted?

Image credit – mastrobiggo on Flickr.

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