We’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about the way that people use the internet. And especially about the way that they use search engines. As a company interested in search engine optimisation, that’s perfectly understandable. And our most recent interest has been sparked by the ongoing rise in navigational searches, which has led us to wonder how exactly the general public use search engines.
Navigational Searches On The Rise
According to research conducted by Compete over the last few years, the greatest number of searches were ones for which adding a .com suffix, and placing it in the address bar, would have taken you directly to the site.
Although a portion of these are clearly what are known as “brand searches,” it seems that a great number of them are a result of people simply not knowing or understanding the difference between the search field, and the address bar.
In other words, people trying to get to twitter don’t type www.twitter.com into their address bar, they just type “twitter” into the search engine, and then click on the first link that the search engine results produce.
Now that seems like a logical and potentially time-saving way of navigating the net. And there are sometimes good reasons to do so. For example, if you’re not sure of the actual full URL. Hell, I do it myself. It takes a fraction longer to wait for the results, but it’s less typing too.
However, it seems that the practice may have unintentional side-effects.
Search Engine Optimisation Beats SERPS
A week ago, a site called ReadWriteWeb (a well known and respected website that writes primarily about the internet), posted an article called Facebook Wants To Be Your One True Login.
Google indexed this page, and it started to appear as the first result for searches for “facebook login.” The result? The article was shortly overwhelmed by confused users, posting comments that asked how they could log in to their Facebook page, condemning this unnecessary change for being too complicated, and demanding to be given access to the page they were expecting to see. (To date in fact, the post has more than 1,600 comments, probably some kind of record in a week, many of which expressed frustration that they couldn’t log in to Facebook through this site.)
RWW had to edit their article, including a big, bold disclaimer telling visitors that this was not their Facebook page. And still people couldn’t understand why they couldn’t log in to Facebook. They’d put “facebook login” into their search engine, clicked on the first link, (just as they presumably always had), and now suddenly everything looked different.
Where’s The Problem?
There’s been a good deal of discussion about what this means. Some people think it means people have only the vaguest idea about the internet, and how it works. Others, that Google made a mistake by not making sure that the most relevant result (which would have been the actual Facebook log-in page) was displayed first.
Of course, blaming Google ignores the fact that Google’s search results are, almost always and entirely, governed by a complicated algorithm which determines the relevance of a given page. If your page is frequently updated, has lots of links pointing to it, and contains the relevant words, with other related words, Google’s algorithm will assume it’s the most important page on the topic.
On the other hand, blaming users isn’t very useful either. For a start, it was only a small percentage of total users. For another thing, it was clearly something that had worked for them before. It was only the system throwing up something unexpected (albeit absolutely correctly by Google standards) that caused the problem in the first place.
Learning Lessons in Website Usability
So why is this all so important? Put simply, it’s an important lesson in both user behaviour, and in usability. Users are creatures of habit. They expect to find a certain thing, and if it’s not there, they’re discouraged, confused, or frustrated.
The post that started all this off looked nothing like a Facebook page. Nothing at all. It was the wrong colour, it had prominent headers showing the site logo, it was filled with text that, while mentioning Facebook, made it clear that the page was merely an article about Facebook.
And the users ignored all of that. They scrolled down the page until they saw a Facebook symbol, (because you can log in to comment on RWW using Facebook Connect), and when entering their log-in details didn’t get them into their Facebook profile, they wanted to know why, and left comments slamming Facebook for changing things.
Users Don’t Use
To me, this suggests that users can be remarkably single-minded. Everything on the page was practically invisible to them. They wanted one thing, they looked until they thought they found it, and they did what they’d come to do…namely log-in with their Facebook details.
So when you’re planning your web design, when you’re driving the web development team to produce a huge array of fancy features, are you overlooking the simple fact that users might not care?
It might be worth keeping in mind.
Anyway, this story was too good not to retell. Not because of what it says about anybody. But as a valuable reminder that what we, as web designers, web developers, and the like see when we look at websites, and at the internet in general, is not what the majority of users are seeing.
We’re going to be exploring this issue in more depth over time. So keep an eye out for more articles about how people search. If you’ve got any stories about how you, or anybody you know, uses search engines, send them through to us on [email protected]