UCD vs. SEO - responses

Following my blog posting (and email to uk-usability) regarding search engine optimisation (SEO) and user-centric design I have had some thoughtful emails and just wanted to take the opportunity to respond to a selection of the issues raised.

‘Looking for’ vs. ‘expecting to find’
There is an argument that these are one and the same, that people search for what they want to find on the page, but is this always the case. Anecdotally I know I often search for things in Google when I don’t really know what I’m searching for … today, for example I searched for “networked external storage” but when the results came up and I clicked on one I realised I should have been looking for “ethernet ide drives”. Alastair Campbell of
nomensa also mentioned this frustration when searching in an area who’s terminology is unfamiliar. Site developers thus need to consider not just what their page contains but the quite different ways in which people may look for that content.

A similar frustration was cited by Lola (from Agency.com) – the effect of being dumped on a landing page rather than directly at the point where the searched-for content resides: “if I search for something the last place I’d want to land on is the home page or some other page where I have to navigate and think a bi more to find the info I want” … and earlier “when a user comes to your site intent on finding a keyword she has in mind, you’ll be meeting her needs more readily if her keyword is easy to spot”. I have found the Google bar ‘highlight keywords’ feature invaluable in this instance.

The Team Issue
My original post was concerned with whether putting the SEO team and content development teams together was counterproductive. Ashley, CEO of
e-consultancy asserts that we need to “achieve the optimal balance of what is right for the user AND the search engine” and in this regard “usability people need to understand SEO better and SEO people need to understand UCD better” which is a pretty decent summary and points at a collaborative blend of skills.

Ashley also exposed my naivety in terms of the way that spiders actually work (and thus indicated my need to work closer with spider-savvy SEO colleagues) by informing me that they actually “try to be as human-like as possible”.

Other SEO and usability mutual benefits can be seen by taking a look at “
What’s good for the search engines AND good for the user?” and the more recent (but broader in scope) “From paper to page – what’s the ideal web design process?”. Both of these articles were produced by Ashley.

Many thanks for everyone’s responses to the question.

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iPod video

The rumours were right, an iPod video, the long-awaited enhancement to the 'daddy' iPod (i.e. not the Nano which replaced the mini iPod ... got that? right :) ) In the UK we'll pay £219 for the 30GB version (black or white) and £299 for the 60GB version (again, black or white). These prices are direct from Apple's UK store iTunes 6 is to be released though I suspect this will benefit US consumers primarily with its movie and TV download capability. There's a new iMac too, you might as well read about that on the official site. See my earlier posting for other sites with full details of the announcements today.

I'm not sure where Apple go from here. The iPod is about as functional as it could be now. Only revisions that keep it in the portable media device and not a mini personal computer are reductions in size and increases in capacity - specifically in solid-state memory. Even so, the 15,000 song capacity that the 60GB version now achieves represents most people's entire music library so capacity has an effective consumer limit if not a physical one.

I suppose the innovations now start with the Intel-chipped Macs but as rival manufacturers charge to introduce their own portable video media players Apple will have to be careful to continue with appropriate bold innovations in their flagship device in order to avoid dropping the ball that has so far seen them achieve their most impressive financial results in the company's history.

Search Engine Optimisation: Increased Usability?

A simple question, does search engine optimisation (SEO) improve usability? [a later post with answers is now available]

The reason I ask is that I’ve just been hearing some arguments for restructuring a team to include the SEO guys in the initial content authoring stage to clear the blockage that occurs when content is written and then sent to SEO for amendment. My fear is that if this is taken too literally, that copy on pages resembles the most appropriate for SEO but doesn’t actually work as effectively for the user. Effectively the pages become a long list of keywords and we return, in part, to the days where everyone buried ‘Britney Spears’ in the footer of their pages to score more hits.

In Trenton Moss’ article he asserts that “write your site’s content using the keywords for which users search and you’ll literally be speaking the same language as your visitors”. Well, technically yes you will but most people’s search terms do not reflect good copy. It should be the case, should it not, that search engines reflect the content of the pages they index, not the other way round? Writing page content that engages the user and speaks their language should not be borne out of a need to fit within Google’s requirements but rather a need to fit the users’ requirements.

I accept that other elements of his article ring true, page sizes, CSS in place of tables, descriptive links (a real passion of mine and something which blogging and hypertext rich experiences such as Wikipedia has bought back to life).

However, his last point, ‘Provide Quality Content’ is exactly why I would not like to see the team structured around SEOs. Again we need not to satisfy the SEO drum-beaters but to satisfy the users. To my mind this can only be done by experienced copywriters and people with a genuine nose for what visitors want from a site, people who tested, questioned and researched the user community. So, by all means keep an SEO check at the end of the process but don’t consider it the foundation on which to build a page, right?

[this item has been shared with mailing list uk-usability]

iPod Video Launched today?

Very excited today. More than I should be. A friend alerted me to Mac Rumors (sic) which I have browsed in the past but since the Nano had just been released I'd assumed Apple had played its cards for Q4 2005. Then this rumour appears about "One more thing..." and the visual effect of movie theatre curtains suggests a iPod video with associated iVideo database to download films, TV shows etc. Of course, this is all speculation but this blog reports a significant video blog site has been asked to be part of the presentation.
It all takes place at 10am EST (18:00hrs BST) in San Jose and I for one will be scouring the net this evening to obtain news.
Having just announced their best year ever, Apple are in the ascendant and whilst many would want the delivery of new Power PC versions of the G5 and PowerBook before the switch to Intel chips, I believe that the best people to steer Apple to even greater heights are already in Apple HQ (ASIDE: interesting articles about MSN removing the Apple building at Cupertino from their maps and another one refuting that suggestion)

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Update: This blog will probably have the news ahead of me... Nick Starr seems to be covering the rumors comprehensively


Driving in Greece

I am aware of course that this blog is turning into something quite different from the intended eloquent and considered analysis of web usability but I do have some hope that (due to forthcoming changes in my career) there may be scope to return to these subjects later. In the meantime I find it enjoyable to sit and write about subjects which continue to capture my imagination. And what better place to start than with Greek driving?

Of course this is borne out of my recent driving experience on Samos but a timely article in the Saturday Telegraph has put it firmly on my blog agenda. I feel I should declare an interest, my long-suffering fiancée is half Greek and thus blessed with the temperament of the warm bloodied Mediterranean but, being a British learner driver, she is likewise blessed with a healthy terror of the British driving experience. As a passenger in our rented (and dented) saloon Megane, she found herself looking not so much at the mountain scenery as crossing herself and squirming as we forcibly took another switchback hairpin on the wrong side of the road.

You see the problems are two, three, maybe even fourfold. The fabric of the roads is dire, the presence of road signs and signals erratic, drivers’ obedience to them non-existent and finally, the drivers are under-skilled and fearless. Of course, this is not to imply that us phlegmatic Brits are the pariahs of cautious driving or indeed that our road etiquette is exemplary, far from it, merely that judged by Greek standards one has more of a chance over here than we do over there.

In anticipation of the poor state of the islands roads, I requested Europcar provide us with their smallest runabout, the intention being that this would provide the best visibility and manoeuvrability on mountain switchbacks and through town. When on holiday I’m never really in a rush so a 1 litre engine is fine, if it takes all day to climb up the mountain, so be it. I’d rather have that than be in a 2 litre wide-bodied saloon (sedan) when a coach comes round a blind bend. When I ended up with the free upgrade to the Megane I was miffed rather than delighted.

What amazes me most about driving in Greece is the propensity to overtake where there is no conceivable benefit in terms of time and where the current conditions (blind bend, up hill, driving rain, oncoming traffic etc.) would suggest the only possible outcome is to end up as another shrine and cross on the side of the road. These little shrines are abundant on the roadside, a regular reminder of those that didn’t fare well on the Hellenic highways.

Author of the article Essex University professor Anthony King talks of the white lines painted ostensibly at the edge of the road. In Samos even these are a rare sight. After a ferocious downpour we ventured into the island up the principle roads from Ireon to Mitilini. It was littered with boulders and the previously indistinct tarmac edge had all but disappeared under a sea of red earth and rocks. We did see earth movers scraping some of it back to the edge but you just knew that this was a token gesture and after a few hours the job would be considered complete.

We had been out during this storm, visiting the ancient temple of Hera just outside Ireon and on the desperate limp back to Pythagorio in the downpour I was lit up like a Christmas tree with dipped headlights and fog lamps. In front was a rusty pick-up, in the middle of the road (avoiding puddles) with no lights. Despite being no more than 20 metres in front I was barely able to see him as he swerved right to avoid oncoming traffic and veered left to return to the centre again. He’d have been safer if he’d have driven blindfolded I’m sure. People talk of European standardisation and harmonisation yet in Denmark and Sweden cars have permanent sidelights on by law and in Greece no-one will turn their lights on unless the sun has set?

It’s comforting to know I’m not alone. In the land where one can (as we did) see a standard Daewoo Lacetti cruising the strip with vinyl lettering all over the side and Sakis Rouvas blaring from the stereo, many of us Brits are clearly terrified of driving. 50% of Britons who have driven in Greece describe the standard of driving as poor or very poor. Interestingly, the problem is not one of speed. The Greeks, on the whole, drive relatively slowly - the recklessness comes from people overtaking between 40 and 60 mph to gain one car length. Given that most island drivers are driving heavy old cars with engines under 2 litres on roads like the surface of the moon, this is unsurprising.

Interestingly the YouGov poll, to which the Telegraph article refers, omits Portugal, India, Morocco, Egypt and others meaning that the Greeks may yet have to settle for a (posthumous) bronze in the Olympic sport of dangerous driving.

For all the criticism, here is some practical advice for driving in the Hellenes.