Strategic Web Usability

The Google Threshold

What happens to people before they reach your website? Most of us think of this as a marketing question, drawing an invisible line between the steps visitors take to find our websites and the steps those visitors take once they reach our sites. If people see an ad or hear about a website and type in the URL, that approach may be fine. As more and more visitors reach sites from search engines, though, understanding how those visitors cross the "Google threshold" and what happens to them before and after crossing it is, I'll argue, much more than a marketing question. Understanding the Google threshold is fundamental to usability and to your bottom line.

To explain, let's explore three different scenarios:

Figure 1

Scenario 1: Go Back to Start
Figure 1 represents what has become the normal scenario for most website users that arrive from search engines. In its simplest form, you have a five-step process, although in practice the search results steps could represent dozens of pages. After the threshold, visitors arrive at your home-page and essentially start with a clean slate.

You may think this is a good thing. After all, your home-page probably contains the best explanation of your website, best navigation, and most options. The problem is that you've essentially asked your visitors to start over after what may have already been a frustrating process. You may protest: "What happens on Google isn't my fault!", and you're right, but a visitor's impatience isn't going to magically reset when they cross the threshold. The more difficult the task of reaching your site has been, the worse their overall experience, and the more you'll suffer for it.

Figure 2

Scenario 2: Could You Repeat That?
Another scenario, shown in Figure 2, is when search engines start to spider search results within your site. This is more common for large, e-commerce sites, that may have hundreds or thousands of product pages. Now, after crossing the threshold, the visitor is hit with an odd sensation of déjà vu, feeling like they have to repeat the search that they just did.

Although this is, in its simplified form, a 4-step process, it may be the most alienating scenario. Search visitors have potentially just waded through dozens of results pages, and finding yet another search results page after the threshold is likely to drive them away. To make matters worse, Google specifically recognizes search within search as being bad for its users and suggest in its quality guidelines that you "prevent crawling of search results pages or other auto-generated pages that don't add much value for users coming from search engines".

Figure 3

Scenario 3: Your Wish Is My Command
This brings us to the the final scenario (Figure 3). Imagine that a user searches Google, finds a result that's of interest, and then, upon crossing the threshold, is magically transported to exactly the information or product they were looking for. In my simplified scenario, this amounts to a 3-step process, with the visitor landing deep within your site. This is much more than just about being user-friendly or helping out Google. In Scenario 3, the visitor has jumped directly to a specific, actionable page of interest, saving many steps and significantly boosting your chance of making a sale.

Full-Cycle Usability
It's clear, then, that usability is not just something that happens after the Google threshold. It's not enough to understand how visitors navigate your website; you need to consider the entire user experience, starting from the very beginning. Of course, controlling that pre-threshold experience is as much about SEO as user-centered design, but it begins with just appreciating the user's entire journey and working to understand how people reach your site in the first place. If you can master that, you'll have created a positive user experience (and, with it, better conversion) from the moment your visitors walk in the virtual door.

David LaFerney

 · Friday, October 12
It's clear from my analytics that when people land on the most relevant page (instead of the index) the bounce rate is lower, and the conversion rate is higher. The question is, since the index page has by far the most incoming links how do you get Google to serve the more relevant result to the product page that has no inlinks? BTW, good luck with that authority blog thing.

Dr. Pete

 · Friday, October 12
Hey, David; thanks for stopping by. I wish I had the secret for getting link love to deep pages, but I have had some luck with it. I really saw this idea illustrated when I made some SEO improvements to an e-commerce client who was heavily stuck in the supplemental index. Suddenly, their product pages were getting indexed directly and we were seeing tons of new, essentially long-tail, traffic. It really opened my eyes about how that affected the user experience (not to mention conversion).

One technique I have had luck with is selectively blocking some of my search results pages with Robots.txt, etc. (be careful, of course) and then adding the individual product pages to my XML sitemap. That encourages Google to see the deeper pages and ignore some of the pages that are more paths than results.

Elen Prague

 · Tuesday, October 30
I agree that Scenario 3 is the right way for web pages.
But you should not forget also for users who are not looking for particular product directly. There is still a lot of users who do not know exactly what they want when they start search. And that is why is very important also middle level between homepage and product pages.

Vingold

 · Sunday, November 4
This is one of the best arguments I've seen for optimizing deep internal pages for search! I think I need to send this to a few webmasters I know.

Thank you.
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