Tuesday, October 21, 2008

WebInTravel conference: I hate that we have to choose between the customer and Google (organic search)

Today at WebInTravel Phillip Wolf and Ram Badrinathan of PhoCusWright had a round table discussion on a number of industry issues.

The first statement Phillip posed to us was
“What is best for a consumer in a website’s design and functionality is not the same as what is best for generating the best search engine results”
My answer is that this is true. When a product/marketing team for an online travel company sit a room talking about future plans (as a purist) you would want the number one thought to be “what will be best for our customer”. Unfortunately the pressure of search drives us instead to ask “what does Google need for the best organic results".

A consumer focused proposition is around choice, service, trust, price, interaction and answers. A search based proposition is around links, content , indexing, technical format and my favourite word “uniqueness”. These are no in absolute conflict but there are not the same and require a different mindset. I worry that the second mindset (search focus) is overwhelming the first (consumer focus). This pushes us to grey and (near) black hat activities harming and distracting us from the consumer experience.

I am being naïve to think that marketing and product teams will read this post and refocus away from search to the consumer. Search is just too important for that to happen. Throughout time companies have had to adjust their products away from consumer need to the marketing and distribution environment. Witness continued DVD distribution of movies over fears of download encryption and piracy. Going further back look to the victory of VHS over Beta-max despite the acknowledged technical superiority of Beta-max. It is only natural therefore that search would dominate our thinking. But it worries me. I am a consumer purist and am concerned about the unstoppable trend to design products around search compliance and maximisation rather than consumer maximisation.

What do you think? Are targeting for search and targeting for consumers incompatible?


Michael Cottam said...

Very interesting question, Tim...

I say they're NOT incompatible, and here's why I think that.

Today, tuning for search is perhaps 70% inbound links, 25% internal linking & meta (titles, H1/H2 etc.) and maybe 5% on-page content.

What this means is that you can really do whatever you need to on-page for a great user experience, do a little PageRank sculpting to make sure the linking structure does what the search engines need, while keeping the user-friendly linking there (but no-followed).

As an example, Google "hawaii honeymoon specials" and see where our site (www.thebigday.com) ranks, then look at the content in the pages...embedded Google maps, content page switching without round-trip to the server (FAST!), fly-over menus via CSS instead of Javascript (fast, gets past ad blocker s/w, AND can be seen by crawlers), photo albums, videos, user reviews, etc.


Michael Cottam
michael at thebigday.com

Anonymous said...

I believe both can exist together, still I am hoping that in the end quality will weigh more important and result in higher conversions then search engine optimization.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tim,

Great question - I'm looking forward to reading everyone's comments.

My take is that consumer and seo designs are not incompatible, especially if basic seo rules are followed (on page, off page, and consistently writing good content.)

Also, search algorithms take into account landing page abandonment rates, which should help prohibit too much "search only" optimization over the long haul.

Anonymous said...

The truth is that they are not usually incompatible; but really in travel people DO start at Google, and you DO have to design with google in mind and sometimes there are conflicts; in fact our lead development person got frustrated and created a good satire for this very topic.


Google always says "do what's good for users" and that will also be what's good for google, when really Google has decided what's "good for users" and while they have used generally accepted standards there are exceptions, and it's those exceptions "well that won't work well for my site" that cause issue.

for example perhaps you have a great site like I dunno, the new york times, and you think that the best experience for your users is for them to have an account so that they can get personalized news for them. to do that your content may not be open for google to crawl, and as a result you won't rank.

The other thing is priority - how do you prioritize, perhaps you may think that a feature is not that big a deal for users (like having "pretty" URLS) but having nice URLS that have the destination and topic name in the URL could be very important for google... is that same feature important for users? maby, but maby I would spend precious dev resources on something else instead, if google did'nt care so much about URLs...

Truth is, there is a conflict, and in this business, search seems to be winning over stuff that is good for users time and time again;

Google: just do what's good for users, unless you want to rank, then worry about what we think is good for users first :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Tim,

I usually don't comment on posts but I feel the need to give you the Google perspective on this one. Of course there are technical requirements such as clear structures and hierarchies that websites should include, so that any search engine can find and index your content.

To rank well in Google, site owners and businesses need to make their pages for users. We use hundreds of different signals to rank webpages. The reference to links and structures really just scratches the surface. Google has changed a lot and improved its ranking tools since PageRank was invented in the 1990s. Focusing only on links and other traditional SEO techniques is not the way to improve your site's rankings - in fact, building pages for search engines and not users is, in my experience, a surefire way to deliver a website that consumers don't like and that will not rank well.

What will drive good search rankings - and I have seen this from my experience working with travel companies - is making pages that consumers come back to, talk about, link to or reference, send to friends and generally enjoy using. In this sense the comment about url's is important - a consumer needs to be sure they are going to a relevant, trustworthy site.

We make all of this clear in our Webmaster Guidelines within Google Webmaster Tools, which are valuable resources for people building websites. Anyone who is interested can find them here: www.google.com/webmasters/tools/

Chaoley said...

A great user experience and a good SEO foundation are not at all incompatible. Usability is an important part of the user experience, and Usability and SEO go together “like peas and carrots” as Forrest Gump would say.

“What is best for a consumer in a website’s design and functionality” definitely includes good usability practices, and therefore good organic SEO.

Anonymous said...

I think sometimes you do have to make a choice...

for example on our site we use location auto-complete.

i love it from a user standpoint though google can't index it, therefore all our competitors use drop down menu's.

we'll stick to our strategy with the belief we'll win new clients based on our useability focus.


Unknown said...

Hi Tim interesting topic

This is a big stuggle for all organisations but i think the debate is more nuanced than this.

My mental check list for reviewing the balance of search as opposed to pure consumer experience depends on:

the nichenes of the business
its cultural make up
the part of business and technology cycle the business is in both right now.

The formaula is prehaps one of:

business cycle
technology limitations

These items are combined with 2 highly segmented factors:

The particular online weather that maybe buffeting the ecological webtravel niche your website thrives.

2. The tricky one, the underlying cultural factor which is hard to asses and that is, "which clan in the business has the dominating influence the transactionalist (numbers) or the marketers (engagement) as this skews development priorities?"

Many organisations are limited by site design and technology to the extent to which they can manipulate their online expeirence and the pressures of business as usual and maintaining market positions and volumes in a near sited stock market and in an industry which has very transparent market share reporting make it hazzardous and difficult to change. Further to this for larger organisations and complex OTAs stake holder management limits choices.

For smaller business the issues are simpler (but smaller business as a group are a massive segment of the industry) the issues are simpler - can you afford to change or not afford to change - have you done your segment analysis for online offline client aquistions -
are you in transaction aquistion phase - a data base building phase - a brand development phase - is your segment under going consolidation or are the big guns encroahcing on your terrirtory. These issues drive website development choices. Small and midsized players cant compete with the giants at search on many fronts or on PPC position. However they can and do thrive on service and niche ranking and the questions they face are reasonably simple - does the website seem to work well for our consumer? - okay what can we do to make it more search friendly, or, the website is postioned well & we are getting traffic but low conversions? - okay what do we need to do to effect a better consumer experience? And from there it comes down to hard work and review.

In summary there is right or wrong, no rule or viable measure for the search vs consumer experience debate it is a case by case approach.

Peter Topping. Melbourne Business Systems Consultant.

Anonymous said...

Tim, I've always seen a huge correlation between SEO and the consumer, from a usability perspective - sites that every consumer can use also tend to be the ones that every bot can spider.

I realise there is the potential for over-focusing on search engines as a result, but find it hard too see this as a bad thing.

IMHO the issue not with the content, but the infrastructure, as good dev work should provide every marketer with an environment that is usable and functional for all stakeholders, consumers included.