Every day we get businesses coming to us looking to improve their search engine rankings. They want to talk about an SEO campaign but one quick look at their site and we see that SEO may not be the right approach for them. Usually in these cases the site needs a complete usability makeover.
These businesses, however don't want to discuss website architecture, visitor usability, or even making their site search engine friendly. They want rankings and want them now.
I understand their standpoint. These are small businesses looking to purchase a service that will get them near instant visibility and exposure. "We'll take care of the rest," is what they often imply. But therein lies the problem. SEO and SEM without good usability is like inviting people out to eat at a rat and roach infested restaurant. You may bring people in, but you won't make them happy.
A real-world usability analogy
Lets take this restaurant analogy and extend it out a bit. Lets say that you own the restaurant. You start spending money on advertising and see more and more people trickling into the restaurant each night. But you notice something peculiar. Some who come through the doors turn right around and leave. Others come and eat, but you never seem them come back a second time.
You start running the numbers and find that each night about 300 people are coming through your doors but only 5% stay and eat. You're selling about fifteen meals a night. You realize you have a problem. And the solution is... more advertising.
You know it's the rats and roaches that are turning people away but you feel that if you just increase your advertising you'll be able to sell more meals. It works. Each night more and more people come to your restaurant. Few stay but many more leave before they even taste your delicious cooking. Yet you are selling more meals so that's a good thing.
You figure if you boost your advertising even more you can increase your traffic to 600 a night and serve 30 dinners. Again, if you do even more marketing and bring in 1200 a night then you can serve 60 dinners. That's some solid growth goals, you think.
A friend suggests that instead of advertising you fix your roach problem. So you run the numbers for that and come back disappointed. Fixing the problem will expend a full year's worth of your advertising budget. And if you stop advertising you know you'll lose well over 90% off your nightly traffic, which means that only 15 people will be coming through the doors each night. If you were to maintain your 95% exit ratio then you'll only end up serving one, maybe two meals a night instead of 15. And even if you were to serve 100% of those that came through your door, there won't be any growth because there is no new advertising to bring people in.
By all appearances fixing your rat and roach problem is going to cost much more than you'll gain. You'll lose 12 meals a night and at best maintain without the potential of growing for a full year. You conclude that it doesn't make sense to stop advertising or to fix the roach and rat problem so you decide to continue doing what you're doing. After all the advertising is bringing in the people, and you are selling a few more dinners each night than the night before.
Usability works exponentially
What you don't realize is that usability works exponentially. Let's say you, as the restaurant owner, spend your yearly advertising budget and fix your roach and rat problem. A week later your restaurant is squeaky clean. Now what?
Since you're not advertising you find things worse than expected; only a handful of people are coming through the door, much less than you had hoped. But you notice something else, of the five or ten people that come through each night, all but one or two stay and order a meal. That's new.
Your foot traffic has dropped much more than you anticipated but the number of meals you are serving each night has stayed pretty strong. You're serving fewer meals than before but more than you had initially calculated. Of course, that’s still a net loss for you.
But the next night you get a few more coming in and again 90% of them stay instead of flee. As you talk to your customers you find that, for the first time, your place was recommended by someone who came the night before. The following week you notice customers from the previous week are returning. That's never happened before. And each night you talk to people who are coming in based on the recommendation of someone else.
Before you know it you're bringing in 30 people a night through referrals and repeat business and are serving at least 25 meals. That's what you were serving while advertising heavily. A year later you find that with very little or no advertising you're doing significantly better than before and almost as well as you had projected had you kept your money invested in new advertising.
With a new year you have an advertising budget again but you realize that you won't have to spend near as much as before in order to increase your business. Your advertising dollars go a lot further now because you don't have to bring in a whole lot more traffic just to get a few sales. Now, your sales growth is much more in line with your traffic growth. You decide then that you can take the excess advertising dollars and re-invest it in better equipment, more cooks and perhaps even a larger space that will seat more people.
Making usability work for you
So I'm sure that by now you can see where I'm going with this. While search engine marketing is important, sometimes your advertising dollars are better spent making your website more user friendly. Usability issues can kill website business. But most people just focus on getting more people or traffic to the store because they rationalize that this is how they sell more.
By fixing usability issues you can sell more while without having to spend a lot of money always trying to bring in a lot of new traffic. A little goes a long way. Once you are able to increase your conversion rates, every dollar you spend on marketing and SEO will be more effective and have a much bigger impact on your profit margins.
So, when is usability more important than SEO? Almost always.
Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.
If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.
Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.
Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.
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