You Had Me At the Search Engine

You've likely heard of the movie, Jerry Maguire, with its famous line, "You had me at hello." Jerry Maguire was luckier than web sites we find in search engines. Many web sites don't attract user devotion at the first word, let alone after scanning the home page.

How many times has this scenario happened to you? You've performed a search in a search engine or directory, reviewed the results and found a page description that fits what you were looking for. When you click on the page that looks the most promising, usually you arrive at the web site's home page, where one or more things might happen:

1. The page loads slowly due to too many graphics, dynamic applications or scripts

2. There are terms used on the page that you don't understand.

3. It promotes products or services that were not mentioned in the page description from the search engine.

4. The products or services are unrelated to what you searched for.

5. The page is "amateurish" in appearance and you're not feeling confident about things like customer service, user privacy and security, experience with the product, or other credibility issues.

6. The page is so busy you don't know where to go to next, or distractions caused you to forget your original mission.

7. Something has turned you off, such as swimsuit models that don't look like you do, corporate images of businessmen, not women, or multiple animated things.

8. An invasive advertisement appeared that you had to click away so you could read the content underneath it.

9. The page loads but your scum ware radar starts beeping like crazy or popup and security alerts appear.

10. You need a magnifying glass to read the content.

If a keyword search brings back an inside page, more common frustrations occur to drive people away from the web site. They include:

1. There is no navigation to the rest of the web site.

2. There is navigation, but no visible, easy to locate link to the main home page or main web site.

3. A link "home" is offered, but sub-navigation is missing, so that the user must start at the beginning to figure out where they landed inside the web site.

4. Link labels do not help explain what the web site is about, so the visitor may not be inspired to click around.

5. There is no suggested click path to follow. For example, if the page happens to be an article, it might be useful to say "Did you find this article helpful? Here are more articles that may interest you."

We often forget that search engines index more than our home page. People often stumble into our web sites while searching for other things, linking from another web site, or receiving an email link from a friend. The starting place isn't always home base.

So, how do you make a web site page approachable in a crowded room of search engine results? First, make sure your title tag is accurate. Every page requires a title tag unique to the content it represents. The home page is an overview page, so focus on the lead goal, which is often also your main keyword(s).

Next, write a genuine, honest description that isn't all hype and glorified self-worship about how great the web site is. If the site is going to sell something, what does it sell? Does it specialize? Avoid words like "unique", "amazing", and "special" because, frankly, everybody makes these claims.

It's important to not put too many keywords in your title and description tags because these are displayed in search engines as your site or page description. When read by humans, they don't make sense. People are getting wiser. They know that what you're doing is trying to get higher rank but it doesn't mean your web site is any better in quality that those lower in search results.

Whether a home page or inside pages, there are lots of ways to attract attention or generate curiosity so that your visitor becomes a potential customer, or simply finds the content interesting enough to keep browsing around. My favorite part of discount stores are the displays they toss clearance items into, or those "Oh yes, I forgot I needed that" type items. You can do the same thing with your web site. Simply place the toenail clippers, scotch tape and calling cards out front where they're easily seen. In other words, remind your visitors of what they didn't know they came for.

Here are some other ideas to try:

1. Provide a good reason to enter your site. Don't expect anyone to take your word for anything. Offer incentives.

2. Put a visible text link to your sitemap on every page. Even your local shopping mall has a map with a "You Are Here" pointer.

3. Be forthcoming and descriptive with pictures. If you sell shoes, show the tread. If you design and make your own crafts, show close-ups of the detail and workmanship. Furniture looks great alone, but can a woman site comfortably with her legs crossed? The sunglasses line you offer is likely filled with brand name shades, but what types of faces will they look right on? I have a difficult time buying artwork online because I can't visualize the dimensions in my head. A picture of a framed version, hanging in a room with furniture, will help me understand what I'm trying to purchase. In a virtual world, you must go to great lengths to sell things people can't touch or see in use.

4. Place words like "sale", "getting started", "first-time user", "learn more", "try now", "buy now", "free", "download", "we deliver" and "free shipping" on your pages, above the page "fold". This is what users are looking for.

5. On your home page, provide an introduction and suggestions for where your visitors might like to go next, based on their needs.

Search engines can only bring a visitor to your doorstep. It's your job to grab them by the hand, invite them inside and show it off.

Usability Consultant, Kimberly Krause Berg, is the owner of">,"> &"> Her background in organic search engine optimization, combined with web site usability consulting, offers unique insight into web site development.

Copyright 2004

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