You might think you have little control over how visitors experience your Web site from search engine results.

So it might surprise you to learn there are some things you can do to tweak your listings to improve usability.

Let's look at the issue of usability, how it relates to search engine listings, and what you can do to improve visitors' experience.

Searches and Seekers

First, consider a user interested in buying a product you sell on your site. If this person isn't sure where to buy it -- maybe Amazon doesn't sell it -- then she'll likely search for it using a well-known search portal such as Yahoo!, AOL or MSN. The search results she encounters will appear in a variety of formats.

Major search portals employ two primary formats of search technology: directory listing and crawler-based databases. A third format, paid listing, is more closely associated with advertising than with search technology.

Some users are more comfortable browsing hyperlinks in a directory; they avoid using a search field if possible. More experienced users typically experiment with search fields and might know to look for page matches that indicate crawler-based results.


Browsing directories can be helpful for finding categorized Web site listings. But category names can be confusing to first-time users and might translate into a lot of frustrating dead-end experiences.

Users who typically enjoy browsing directories have learned the particular nomenclature of their favorite directory and are familiar with some of its listed sites.

However, these searchers look through listings that contain few data associated with the Web site. Further, directories often miss or mismatch Web sites for user queries. Typically, major directories provide crawler-based "fall-through" results when the directory matches are few or nonexistent.

Crawler-Based Engines

In terms of results, crawler-based engines provide the best matches to a query; they have the most material with which to work.

A user's experience with searching crawler-based engines can be spotty, however, because databases contain promotional spam. The more typical a query, the more likely it is spam will appear in the results. The more unique a query, the more crawler-based search results will shine.


You can control some usability factors that affect user experience in searching for and surfing your site.

Users appreciate seeing search terms highlighted or in bold face type on the results page, and they like to see a contrast in color between hyperlinks they've visited and ones they haven't. This indicates users are aware that ranking is less important than listing appearance when they revisit search results from a previous session.

Your directory listing should be strategically placed in categories named after relational search terms, if possible. Your listing title and description should balance other search terms and use language that provokes users to click. These terms are generally highlighted.

For the same reason, page titles and descriptions submitted to crawler-based databases should also contain search terms.

Balance search optimization factors without neglecting to display an enticing listing to generate more clicks.

Return on Investment

Return on investment (ROI) is not always high for users browsing directories. These less experienced users will also have to fight with your site to find what they want. This is because directory listings link to the home page!

Splash pages aggravate users and Flash movies are usually built so far out of usability context that users don't understand how to navigate them. These features also add to download time, and that will push users' moods into negative territory from the start.

Of course, better-designed sites convert directory traffic more frequently than those with ineffective navigation schemes.

Design your site to get visitors to the information they want in as few clicks as possible. Every click might drop 30 percent or more of your search-related traffic.

Drop the Hops

ROI from crawler-based results convert better for a couple of reasons. First, users are usually directed to a page containing the information they sought instead of the home page.

Second, information on your site can be located using a broad base of search terms that match the content on any of your pages. Users love to land on a page that contains exactly what they're after.

Minimize graphics. Keep things simple with colors precisely and neatly organized against a white background to add personality and warmth to your information.

Avoid using redirect "hops" with landing pages or tracking systems. Dropout rates are real and can cost you. It's possible that 0.1 percent of clicks on the Web get lost in the normal routing of Internet traffic. Imagine clicking a link on a search results page and the Web site doesn't appear.

Each hop multiplies the potential dropout rate. Visitors might think your site is out-to-lunch when the request was lost routing its way through another company you use to track search users.

Make the Sale

The best way to convert search traffic and increase sales is to provide informative listings with awareness of how they will display on search engine result pages. Listings should carry visitors directly to information they seek with as near-to-zero click requirements as possible.

Design your site with easy navigation and information display in mind. Omit splash pages, Flash, redirection or tracking systems.

With this approach, you should make brisk sales. If not, you might assess whether you're offering the search audience anything compelling and whether you've targeted your audience accurately.

March 14, 2002

Detlev Johnson is vice president of technology at Position Technologies, an Inktomi partner and maker of advanced search engine optimization (SEO) tools for webmasters and major online agencies.

Acknowledged as one of the top five search engine optimization experts in the world, he speaks and moderates search engine discussions at leading Internet conferences worldwide, most recently in Dallas, London, Boston, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Berlin, Stockholm and Gothenburg, Sweden, and Sydney, Australia.

He moderates the popular I-Search Digest, a vital SEO resource covering every aspect of Internet search engines and the webmaster tactics that accommodate them. He writes for leading Internet publishers and travels the world consulting with companies on SEO.

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Search Engine Guide > Detlev Johnson > Improve the Usability of Your Search Results