Posted on Aug. 17, 2007

Working for Fusionbox, a full-service Denver Internet marketing, web design and web development company, we’ve all heard the industry “lingo” thrown around every day. Whether at conferences, in magazines, or even at happy hour, everyone is focusing their efforts on catering to the almighty “user.” Google is no different; they’ve modified their search engine indexing programs and their algorithms, or “spiders,” to evaluate a page on a plethora of usability standards to ensure that when a user searches for a topic, the returned search results displayed by Google are the most accurate, targeted, and relevant.

Yet more often than not, these discussions about the future of online marketing and the user’s place within it only seem to muddle the water; everyone has a slightly different idea of what the user really needs or wants, and each swears by their convictions. God knows these lofty terms and the semantic uncertainty that accompanies them keep most of us awake at night, rolling around muttering “users…users…users” in an anxiety induced nightmare. What’s the competition doing that you’re not?

As a company focusing on search engine friendly design as an integral part of our Internet marketing presence, we’ve used experience and results to come to a basic conclusion that has proven true time and time again: If it’s good for your users, it’s good for you. What do I mean by that? Simple. Google’s algorithms are designed to return the most relevant results for whatever a searcher happens to type into the box; thus, if you can accurately predict users’ search queries, you’ll position your site as the optimal search result. Basically, you’ll be found more often by those who are looking for you. So, when designing your site and creating your content, you need to assume the mindset of your user. Ask yourself four critical questions:

1)Who are my users?
2)Why are they here?
3)What are they looking for?
4)How will they search for it?

By answering this set of questions, you’re one step closer to achieving higher search engine rankings. You’re catering to your users’ needs, and be sure that Google’s spiders (and those from other search engines) will reflect this fact in the form of a higher search rank. By creating targeted content and linking to sites that are related to this content, you’re taking a step in the right direction.

Remember too that due to the global reach of the web, your competitors are no longer just those in your immediate area. Instead of focusing on them, worry about your most immediate competition online, the “delete” and “back” buttons. After all, who is going to try to navigate through a site nowadays searching for something they can’t find? The answer should seem obvious: NO ONE!

Instead, they’ll leave your page and go to one where the information and resources they need are clear and easy to find. So give it to them upon arrival and never give them the chance to click the dreaded “back” button! Don’t make your users work to find what they’re looking for. If you do, usability studies have shown they’ll be gone in less than five seconds. Really? Five seconds! Is that all you’ve got? As the Internet connections speed up and users become more impatient, the truth is you might have even less time than that.

In the coming years, it’s safe to assume that almost every site will be optimized in some form, and those that aren’t will suffer greatly as far as traffic and positioning are concerned. But at this point in time, the majority of existing sites have yet to be optimized effectively, so any effort remains a good one.

Still, if you plan to compete for business online in the future, the best thing you can do now is start thinking more about your users. Then, act upon the information you’ll discover, implementing what you know works best for visitors to your site. Fancy animation, gaudy graphics, and overwhelming navigational frameworks have officially left the party. We all know the technology that drives the web and enables search engine marketing is constantly evolving; today’s innovation is tomorrow’s antique. But one principle that’s exploded onto the scene is here to stay: user-centric design.

In the end, your ultimate goal should be to provide a more full, rich, and encompassing experience for your users. But you can’t begin to do that until you understand who these users are and what they’re looking for. Welcome to the mystifying domain of search engine optimization. In essence, make yourself the information destination by providing rich content and relevant links, and your search engine results will reflect your efforts with increased traffic and higher positioning.

There are a number of free tools out there to help you in your quest to understand user motivations and ultimately achieve higher search engine rankings. Examples include Clicky, Quantcast, Microsoft Demographics Prediction and Popuri.us.

The moral of the story: Put yourself in your users’ shoes. When taking any action on your web site, whether it be design, development, marketing, or otherwise, ask yourself if that action meets the now etched in stone First Commandment of Web 2.0: Is it good for my users? If it is, you might finally be able to get some sleep tonight and stop having nightmares about the future of your web presence.