Jakob Nielsen on SEO

John Scott: Dr. Nielsen, you’re recognized as the foremost expert on web usability.

Can you tell us a little about yourself, personally and education-wise and how you became Mr. Usability?

Dr. Nielsen: Back when I was an undergraduate student in the 1970s, I read Ted Nelson’s books “Computer Lib,” “Dream Machines,” and “Literary Machines” in which he set out a vision of computers that were easy and pleasant to use and which gave you access to all the world’s information at your fingertips. Nelson is the guy who invented hypertext, and I got fired up by his vision, particularly compared with the clumsy mainframe computers we had to use at the university at the time.

As a result, I started to study human-computer interaction, and got my Ph.D.
in this subject from the Technical University of Denmark. I also taught for a few years at this university, and I had a lot of students who were very excited about the topic, but unfortunately my students couldn’t get jobs in usability after they graduated. This was at the time when the Mac had just recently been released and all the big companies in Denmark considered the graphical user interface to be nothing but a toy.

Luckily I got a job offer from Bell Communications Research in the U.S. This was a spin-off from Bell Labs, and a much more fertile environment for working on making computers easier. I don’t regret for a second leaving academia, because I much prefer doing studies that have a real-world impact, even if they are less esoteric than what’s needed to get a scientific paper published. I still like teaching and getting my message out to an audience, and to satisfy that need I now run a usability conference series where I travel the world with my colleagues and educate many more people than I could ever reach at a university.

I have always had the feeling that computers can be better and it makes me mad when users have to struggle with bad design that we *know* is bad, because it violates well-documented usability guidelines. I probably wouldn’t make a good diplomat, because I really don’t suffer fools gladly.

Of course, I realize that any practical design project has to be a compromise between many different requirements. Customer needs are only one requirement, but I make no apologies for being a forceful advocate for users because they are the only stakeholder who’s not at the table when decisions are made. And business success on the Web is highly dependent on usability, so companies tend to make more money when they follow more usability guidelines. No, it’s not the only thing, but it’s an important thing, and it happens to be my passion, so that’s what I talk about. Somewhat like if you were to interview a baseball star: he probably wouldn’t claim that football or basketball were irrelevant or that nobody should watch those sports. But he would talk baseball.

John Scott: How would you rate the usability of V7N.com?

Dr. Nielsen: You fail one of my big guidelines, which is the ability to make the font size larger in the browser. You may not have a lot of older users, but text size starts being a problem for people around 50. At least your default text size is not so tiny that it’s a real problem.

I would probably also recommend a bit more inter-linking, so that users could more easily find other related articles, without having to go through the entire site hierarchy.

Basically, though, it’s an easy enough site to use.

John Scott: What is the single biggest mistake you see being made on the web today in website design? And how can that be remedied?

Dr. Nielsen: The single biggest mistake is bad search internally on the website itself.

Most sites have search engine software that’s substantially worse than what’s being used by the big web-wide search engines. Invest more in buying good search software for your site, and also spend more time writing good headlines and page summaries. Interestingly, most of the improvements in the site’s own search results will also benefit it in terms of SEO on the external search engines.

John Scott: How do you view search engine optimization in relation to web usability? Is search engine optimization compatible with best practice usability?

Dr. Nielsen: “Black hat” techniques like cloaking and link farms are certainly bad, as is the tendency to unrestrained link swapping, which fills up pages with irrelevant links.

But the “white hat” techniques are mostly highly aligned with usability. I see three main classes of techniques: word use and writing; site architecture; and reputation building.

In terms of word use, it’s always been a usability guideline to use the users’ language, and that’s basically what’s required for SEO. Find out what words users use to describe their problem and use them in writing about your solution. The main problem is if people overuse the keywords in an attempt to drive up the density. Similarly, clear headlines have always been a usability guideline, and they work wonders in getting clicks on the SERP.

For site architecture, I have always recommended stable URLs, having a clear starting point for each topic, and making sure to link to this “main” page from discussions of its topic elsewhere on the site. These seem to be the main SEO guidelines as well, in terms of the technical structure of the site.

Finally, SEO aims to increase the reputation of the site, since search engines rely heavily on quality ratings. Currently, they mainly assess quality by counting links, and the main way to get other people to link to you is to have a good site with quality content, which obviously is a usability guideline as well.

John Scott: You recently wrote an article entitled, “Search Engines as Leeches on the Web”. One SEO forum administrator, Brett Tabke, challenged you to block search engine spiders from your website. How do you respond to this?

Dr. Nielsen: I didn’t say that search engines are bad or that there’s any harm to a website from being listed in a search engine. I just said that they are taking too big a share of the value that’s being created by the many people and companies that build original websites.

I also think that websites are advised to rely less on search engines for their business. It’s better to emphasize loyal users in your Internet strategy, for example by having an email newsletter.

Right now, search advertising is found money for many sites because so many other companies continue to be clueless about the Internet and waste their budgets on banner ads that don’t work. As long as competition for keywords is low, you can buy clicks for much less than you make from those users. But that’s not going to continue. Sooner or later, keyword prices will be so high that most sites won’t be able to get a positive ROI. But as long as prices are low and you can rack in fat ROIs, then of course you should keep doing it.

John Scott: With the proliferation of high speed Internet connections, is Flash still a bad idea?

Dr. Nielsen: Most Flash continues to be bad. Sad, particularly since we did conduct a major research study to develop the usability guidelines for good Flash.

The problem with most Flash is that it’s irrelevant and gets in the way of users. The download time is only one of the many problems, and even with instantaneous download, users prefer to visit sites that contain more straightforward content.

But we have certainly seen several examples of useful Flash applications, and also some entertaining or educational uses of multimedia that work well for some types of sites, such as the site for the Harry Potter film, which we tested in our current eyetracking

John Scott: If you could give the SEO industry one piece of advice, what would it be?

Dr. Nielsen: Do more user testing, and watch how users behave on the SERPs, and what’s causing them to click on one listing rather than another. That’s another thing we are testing in the eyetracking study, and it’s amazing to see how little of the text people read. The data is still coming in, so I don’t have the detailed results yet, but you do learn a lot when you watch users, even for a few hours. You don’t have to use an expensive eyetracker: just sit next to the person and ask them to think out loud.

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