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Website Usability Threats: Misunderstood Search Engine Optimization and Software Upgrades From Hell  

:: Friday, August 05, 2005 ::

The other night, as I was about to pass on into dreamland, I was abruptly awakened with, “Those idiots got rid of my fields!” Illuminated by the laptop’s monitor light, I watched with one eye open as my husband sat cursing out his online banking application.

The Bank Upgrade That Wasn’t

I’m not sure why this happens so often, but here in the USA, the Banks where we stick our money are constantly acquired by other banks. Customers get a zillion formal letters announcing the change and insist “Everything you’re used to will remain the same.” Baloney!

In this most recent event, which I’ve had to hear about all week, hubby’s Bank changed over to a new Bank and along with that, switched to a new online banking system. With absolutely no warning (other than the assurances that nothing will change), the whole existing user interface was replaced with something brand new. Along with this newness and grandeur came hubby’s shock that months of dutifully entered notes typed into fields that accompanied each bank transaction were suddenly gone. Kaput! Nowhere in the universe.

What kind of software application project management decision says “Get rid of everything, including the customers’ data and start all over again, without letting them know or giving them a chance to save anything important.”

Personally, I’ve yet to use any online banking web application that’s user friendly. My Bank has one that’s impossible to use and they had the nerve to charge a fee for using it. Recently, they stopped charging their fee. I figured that’s because nobody was using it. However, the Bank still didn’t get the hint. Even for free, it’s frustrating to use for online bill paying and tracking accounts is inconvenient due to built-in limitations.

Most web designers I know freak out at the thought of making web page changes, for fear they will upset end users. Learning how to use a favorite web site all over again makes people crazy, as if you just asked them to clean out their garage or something.

Always communicate to your end users. A sneak peek at what’s coming is a nice gesture. Moreover, make sure there is someone at the Help Desk who is customer service oriented. My husband sent several emails to the Bank people because, after all, he’s a Software Application Quality Assurance Engineer and knows a disaster when he sees one. The folks at the Help Desk were trained to be polite and stupidly unhelpful.

Hubby is looking for a new Bank.

Let’s Review. Search Engine Algorithms Are NOT People.

First, there was the phone call I got from the web site owner who paid just under $100,000 for search engine optimization and is now looking for someone to clean up their mess. Yep. Another one of THOSE stories, where something went terribly wrong and the client is going to shoot the next person who dares to say “keywords” to their face.

Jill Whalen wrote a nice piece in this week’s High Rankings Advisor newsletter in which she, too, sees usability damage caused by poor SEO techniques, or as she points out, more likely misunderstanding proper search engine optimization, period.

She writes, in her “Jill’s SEO Ramblings” section under “Search Engine Marketing Issues" in the High Rankings Advisor - Issue No. 145:

“I've had 2 or 3 emails just this week from people who hired various SEO companies to do work for them, only to have the company make recommendations that actually made the pages
of their website *worse* than they were before they hired the company. Not necessarily worse for the search engines, but most definitely worse for the site visitors. In this day and age, it's hard for me to fathom that an SEO company would still be telling their clients, "You have to do this for the search engines, even though we realize it makes your site look dumb."

Jill makes other great points too. For example, the hysteria over reciprocal links. She writes,

“There are tons of ways to get links other than trading for them. Many sites don't lend themselves to having a links page, and that is okay! Don't let an SEO company force you into creating one if
it's just not appropriate for your company.”

This is something I’ve always believed in. One of the most frequent questions I get is “Is my links page okay?” I’m never sure what that means. If having 150 links that take your ecommerce customers to other online stores to buy stuff is okay with you, than why are you asking me this? Sure, with any luck, those 150 sites linked back and are somehow related to your site by marriage, but every off-site link is a back door to the parking lot. If a link doesn’t have a good (business) reason for being there, don’t be pressured into hosting it.

Jill also wrote, “I cannot stress enough that whatever you do for your website to make it better for the search engines should first and foremost also make it better for your users.”

Her company is one of the elite few that makes sure its clients have access to web site usability analysis along with any search engine marketing plans. It’s just common sense to want to make sure that once you score points with search engines, it should also pay off in traffic, sales, and ROI. When hunting for SEO help, ask about their skills in usable web design too.

Testing (and Listening) for Web Accessibility

The nightmare of what a keyword stuffed web page sounds like through a screen reader device like JAWS is something I’ve written about before. If you want to see some fascinating proof of what some of your end users are experiencing, which could also explain abandonment issues, Access Matters has just the thing for you.

An index of articles, quizzes, test cases and recordings will let you listen and experience a series of tests. Highly recommended and a fantastic (free) service for anyone who wants to learn more about accessibility issues and web site design.

Also, if you haven’t seen it yet, I love Matt Bailey’s site - Web Site Accessibility Blog: Matt Bailey's Accessibility Outlook - Raising the awareness of Web Site Accessibility and Marketing.

:: posted by Kim Krause Berg on 8/05/2005 06:52:00 PM

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