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TAMU Webmaster's Blog

Information and insight from the A&M Webmasters


Hospitality: beyond SEO, beyond usability

For too long, webmasters have thought of search engine optimization as if it were nothing more than a form of advertising, and usability as if it were nothing more than accessibility. SEO became a set of clever techniques to get visitors to your site, and usability became a set of rules that might be reluctantly followed.

Now things are changing. The old SEO techniques aren’t working as well or as long. To get high rankings for many competitive keywords, the most important “technique” seems to be, “Have pages that people want to link to.” As far as usability, it turns out that pages that are hard for the disabled to use are probably hard for everybody else to use. Not only are they not accessible, they’re not very usable.

These problems with websites – people can’t find us, people can’t use us – can easily get masked. Most webmasters reason to themselves, “We have visitors, we must be doing something right.” But it’s difficult to know how many more visitors you would have had – how much longer they would have stayed, and how much more they would have recommended your site to others – if you had done things differently. If your site pleases you and your boss, you may hear no complaints. But your potential visitors are not you or your boss. They haven’t even visited yet. You may not know much about your potential visitors at all.

Both findability and usability have a bad name in some circles. People see web pages where the keywords limit the writers, and where usability rules limit the designers. We need to go beyond that. Content that isn’t interesting or natural, or design that isn’t attractive or even bearable – that’s not usable. That’s not optimized. Not if visitors can’t stand to use it. As Stephen P. Anderson notes, researchers have found that attractive things work better.

Instead of findability or usability, let’s try another word – hospitality. Our visitors are truly our guests. Our websites need to say, “Howdy! Glad you’re here. Can I get you anything? Are you finding everything you need?”

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Tuesday, November 10th, 2009 Search, Usability 2 Comments

Minor Post, Major Find

Excellent library of usability articles from Jared Spool and others at

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009 Usability No Comments

Budget Usability Testing

Is web usability testing possible for less than $50, in less than 2 hours a week? That’s what Chas Grundy of the University of Notre Dame said in his eduweb conference session. So while John and Erick are at HighEdWeb, I’ll finish up with my own conference notes.

Usability testing can be as simple as sitting 3-5 users down in front of your website, and watching what they do. With screen capture software and/or a webcam, you can even record them.

Chas offered several suggestions and encouragements on web usability testing.

  1. Focus on the big issues. Begin today.
  2. Decide what to learn, how to learn, who from, when to test. Most users are similar. If high school students can’t find your “Contact Us” button, neither can rich elderly potential donors.
  3. Explain to the users that there are no right/wrong answers. In fact, they’re not being tested at all – the web developers are.
  4. Test early, test often. Don’t wait until the site is set in stone.
  5. You can test using paper prototypes and mockups, even before your site is finished.
  6. Test competitors’ websites too, to see if alternatives work better than what you’re doing.
  7. When you test, give users tasks. Don’t leave it open-ended.
  8. Encourage your users talk out loud over the tasks, but don’t offer any direction yourself.
  9. If you ask about something, people will create opinions where they had none before.
  10. What web users say is not always what they do. Ignore speculation.
  11. Fix the obvious, do special testing on the hard parts, then retest.
  12. Design once, increment forever.
  13. Remember: everything we do could be wrong. We don’t know until we’ve tested it.

Chas suggested several usability testing software tools…

…and several websites on usability and usability testing:

  • – The online home of Web usability consultant Steve Krug, author of Don’t Make Me Think.
  • – For usability research, many turn to Dr. Jakob Nielsen’s website. For graphic design beauty, they usually look elsewhere.
  • – A one-stop source from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services on how to make websites more usable, useful, and accessible.

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Tuesday, October 6th, 2009 Usability 1 Comment

Can visitors quickly sniff out your web content?

Web searchers have been compared to hunters and gatherers, trying to find the most likely sources of food without using up their strength. Professor Marcia Bates compared it to berrypicking. In the Information Age, we’re looking for information scent to tell us which websites, which web pages, are most likely to give us the answers we need.

As a berrypicker myself, I can tell you that blackberries and dewberries don’t have much scent until you get very close. And that’s the point: you don’t want to wear yourself out trudging over to a berry patch if it has few berries on it. Especially if you’re on the verge of starvation. You don’t want to waste your time clicking on a search result just to see if it was worth clicking on. Me, I work by sight. From a distance, I can identify which plants are berries, how big they are, and if the light is right, how many berries they have. I have to. They say that berrypicking is leisurely, but whoever said that wasn’t as hungry or as passionate about berries as I can be. True berry connoisseurs need quantity as well as quality.

One evidence that web searchers are like berrypickers is the F-shaped pattern you see in eye-tracking heatmaps for search result pages. That is, studies show that when people do a Google search, they don’t even read the whole sentence. Most noticeably, they scan down the left side of the page, looking for information scent. They read some of the top page titles, which are in bold, and read the first part of the top descriptions, but as they go down the page, they read less and less of each result. They almost ignore the last results.

Why do searchers speed-read through Google? Because with all its technology, Google still can’t read their minds, and still provides more information than they have time to review. Words such as “welcome to our site” have no scent, so they have to keep moving.

Sometimes the stakes in search can be high. Later this week, I’ll share a personal example of how information scent helped me find answers during my wife’s recent health emergency.

The World Wide Web is too big for us. Google has indexed one trillion pages. As of last year. It has indexed more now. Finding the right information scent when you search is a matter of life and death. Because, before you’ve wandered through a trillion irrelevant pages to get answers to your question, you’ll be dead.

Monday, June 22nd, 2009 Search, Usability 1 Comment

Browser Language Settings

Today we had an interesting problem with Facebook where the Texas A&M fan page was showing up in french unless the user was logged in. I started trying to find sites that used the browsers language preferences instead of the page preferences and quickly found out how bad internationalization of pages is coming along. Not even or honor browser preferences. We have the problem here of not having translation staff to help us with content.

But I would figure major government and news sites might put forth the effort to translate and do so with the OS or browser preferences in mind. Several sites have an English and a native language version (ex: Al Jazeera). Some US sites have English as the default and then a Spanish version ( Does your site allow browser preferences to determine language? If so, how do you handle the content translations and what processes do you use to determine which version to serve up?

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009 Miscellaneous, Usability No Comments

Search Engine Optimization according to Google

When the world’s largest search engine releases a starter guide for search engine optimization, which Google did this week, it tends to evoke a certain respect. When Google mentions that following their suggestions “could have a noticeable impact on your site’s user experience and performance in organic search results,” webmasters tend to take notice.

When I began working in SEO full-time in 2004, Google tried to act as if there was no such thing as SEO. They basically tried to say, “Just create good websites, and let us decide how to rank them. Stop trying to figure out how we do it. And certainly don’t try to figure out how to get us to rank them higher.” Of course, that didn’t work. Google still insists that webmasters should focus on pleasing human visitors, not search engine spiders. But their starter guide, which began as an internal document, sets out what’s important to them and their spiders.

I’ve gone through the document and simply cut and pasted all the headlines for you below. We’ll continue to elaborate these issues ourselves in the future, but if you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth, download Google’s PDF document.

Edit: Google released an updated version of the SEO Starter Guide in September 2010.

Google’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide

Create unique, accurate page titles
Good practices for page title tags

  • Accurately describe the page’s content
  • Create unique title tags for each page
  • Use brief, but descriptive titles

Make use of the “description” meta tag
Good practices for description meta tags

  • Accurately summarize the page’s content
  • Use unique descriptions for each page

Improve the structure of your URLs
Good practices for URL structure

  • Use words in URLs
  • Create a simple directory structure
  • Provide one version of a URL to reach a document

Make your site easier to navigate
Good practices for site navigation

  • Create a naturally flowing hierarchy
  • Use mostly text for navigation
  • Use “breadcrumb” navigation
  • Put an HTML sitemap page on your site, and use an XML Sitemap file
  • Consider what happens when a user removes part of your URL
  • Have a useful 404 page

Offer quality content and services
Good practices for content

  • Write easy-to-read text
  • Stay organized around the topic
  • Use relevant language
  • Create fresh, unique content
  • Offer exclusive content or services
  • Create content primarily for your users, not search engines

Write better anchor text
Good practices for anchor text

  • Choose descriptive text
  • Write concise text
  • Format links so they’re easy to spot
  • Think about anchor text for internal links too

Use heading tags appropriately
Good practices for heading tags

  • Imagine you’re writing an outline
  • Use headings sparingly across the page

Optimize your use of images
Good practices for images

  • Use brief, but descriptive filenames and alt text
  • Supply alt text when using images as links
  • Store images in a directory of their own
  • Use commonly supported filetypes

Make effective use of robots.txt
Good practices for robots.txt

  • Use more secure methods for sensitive content

Be aware of rel=”nofollow” for links

Promote your website in the right ways
Good practices for promoting your website

  • Blog about new content or services
  • Don’t forget about offline promotion
  • Know about social media sites
  • Add your business to Google’s Local Business Center
  • Reach out to those in your site’s related community

Make use of free webmaster tools

Take advantage of web analytics services

Helpful resources for webmasters

Friday, November 14th, 2008 Search, Usability 17 Comments

Web Accessibility Showcase – Teleconferencing

Since several people have asked about the availability of video broadcasting the showcase, I have contacted TTVN to see what we need to get it set up. The room in the library that we have reserved is already configured for TTVN so we are good for those three days. Library staff will have the room prepared for us before each day’s presentation. However, the room that we have reserved in Rudder is not configured for TTVN broadcasts. I’ll see if we can find an alternative location, but if not we will have our own cameras and will post the sessions as podcasts for those who can’t attend the event in person.

Monday, September 8th, 2008 Accessibility, Usability 1 Comment

Accessibility Showcase: Keynote Speakers

We are happy to announce that Glenda Sims, the “self-appointed Web Accessibility Goddess at UT” and Pat Ramsey, formerly of Southwestern University and now a freelance accessibility consultant will be joining us as keynote speakers for the upcoming accessibility showcase.

Glenda will be sharing with us the framework that the University of Texas has in place for dealing with web accessibility and educational outreach to the campus web community. This will be of particular interest since it is an area that has not been thoroughly examined and decided upon here at A&M. Pat will take a step back and talk about web accessibility in general – what it means, who it affects, why we should do it in the first place.

We are excited to have these two experts in the field joining us, and we we hope that as many of you as possible will make it to the event.

For more information and showcase schedule see

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008 Accessibility, Usability 4 Comments

Web Accessibility Showcase

We are pleased to announce that our office, in conjunction with Web Accessibility Team and UWeb will be sponsoring a Web Accessibility Showcase in September. This will be a week-long event taking place from September 15-19. We will be bringing speakers from on- and off-campus to talk about a host of topics related to web accessibility and usability (new state and university requirements, site testing, available resources, and much more.)

If you are in any way responsible for creating, maintaining, or updating web pages we highly encourage you to attend one ore more of the sessions. Times, locations, and topic agenda can be found at

We hope to see lots of you there!

Thursday, August 21st, 2008 Accessibility, Usability 3 Comments

The New Javascript

For those of you who haven’t read it yet, I highly suggest Jeremy Keith’s DOM Scripting. While none of the concepts are new, the approach he takes brings everything together and creates that “aha!” moment when the lightbulb goes off.  I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that this work is going to be as revolutionary as Eric Meyer’s and Dave Shea’s breakthroughs in CSS.

Gone are the days of the document.write statement and inaccessibilities created by required javascript. Keith lays out the concept of “Progressive Javascript,” also known as “Unobtrusive Javascrtipt.”  Using the DOM, he shows the reader how to separate content from action, just as we use CSS to separate content from design.

The DOM also allows us to use this these scripts unobtrusively – a browser with javascript enabled gets the full effect, those without it enabled will never know they aren’t seeing the primary design. This comes from an emphasis on graceful degredation and designing the page such that the scripting enhances the page rather than creating a page based on the necessities imposed by the javascript.

I’ve historically been one of those developers who avoid javascript on principle. “It’s obtrusive!”, “It’s inaccessible!”, “Not everybody has it enabled!” Well, no more. Using the model of progressive scripting (and a little thought!) I think it’s now possible to use javascript across the spectrum of web design.

Friday, July 6th, 2007 Usability No Comments