Ask.com's Senior User Experience Analyst Michael Ferguson continues his discussion of the company's rebranding, offering tips and suggestions for anyone considering updating or modifying a web site.
Part two of a two-part interview; part one is Rebranding Ask.com.
Rae Hoffman: With the brand change came a huge redesign to your main page. In addition to the logo change, you moved your pictures, news, kids, etc. to the right hand side of the page (they were formerly above the search bar and within the footer). What was the reason for this change and how has it affected the use of those additional features? Do you think there’s something the "average webmaster" can learn from your experience?
Michael Ferguson: With the link tab approach we previously had, we were restricted by the width of the search box. There were only so many Tools we could display before burying them under a "More >>" link. Since we've expanded our types of searches so much (and we wanted to make them visible to more users and help change their mental model of the site), we found taking up a bit more real estate on the home page worked.
Most users just want to hit that box and get to the results (even if they want a news item or an image, they generally want to take as few steps as possible and will go through the default search box). We found users were more distracted from that flow when the Search Tools were on the left.
An interesting thing happens with the new design for those familiar with the previous version displaying the character. They tend to scan for him and find an area of roughly the same width and height: the toolbox focused on their needs.
Making the Tools more visible has increased usage dramatically. Use of Maps and Driving Directions is up 7X, and several other Tools went up 10X.
You also removed your advanced options link next to the search bar on the main page and put it into the right hand navigation bar on the second tab (though it appears next to the search box on internal pages). Why did you do this and what were the effects? The top searches on Ask link also disappeared completely—does this feature still exist?
We wanted to clear up the area around the search box completely (if we could) to underscore our focus on simplicity and search. Most of our Advanced Searches (in the sense of using Boolean or advanced syntax), are user-typed and come through our basic search box. The majority of that use is the basics (quoted strings, "+" and "-" operators). Compared with the other Tools, it wasn't used as much and we felt it could be packed away a bit. Of course, you can order the Search Tools toolbox in anyway you'd like—so it can be easily put at the top of the default view.
We kept it next to the box on the results pages because we see more use there, as a refinement tool.
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Have you read about the eyetracking studies by Eyetools and Eyetrack III? What are your thoughts on eyetracking in general and what has been your own experience in regards to how accurate you believe these types of studies to be?
Eyetracking is a very important tool for understanding search—the process is so fast, and the cognitive clues so subtle, it's a great way to capture behavior.
We've done our own studies and the published ones make a lot of sense. We're always trying to better understand the "real world" experience of search--as all of us get a deeper understanding, I think we'll find variants such as heatmaps changing with attributes like familiarity with the search topic, if the search was performed previously, etc. Gord Hotchkiss has done a great job of telling the story that heatmaps illuminate.
Also, I mentioned this in my talk at SES Toronto, Ask.com has a few elements of its results page that are different from other sites (Smart Answers at the top above the ads, replacing ads on the right with our Zoom related searches, binoculars for page previews next to most search results, etc.) It's truly the most differentiated search results page of all the major search sites. The other engines are experimenting with visual elements and content going beyond the "10 blue links" on the page. I expect that differentiation on the visual presentation of the results will continue. This means expanded research on user experience and more business for search marketers.
How do you see it creating more business for search marketers specifically?
The more rich and complex the results sets become (richer in sources, presentation, and media types), the more advertising agencies and small businesses will need outside expertise to get in the right place at the right time to get traffic. And that traffic will be even more qualified, as the engines improve interpreting and channeling user intent.
If you could offer some advice to small businesses going through a website brand change and/or redesign, what would it be?
Kinda basic stuff, that doesn't need to cost a lot: have current and prospective clients interact with the new brand and site—see if they are more successful at getting things done, and if the brand attributes you want to move do move. Get to know how they view competitors and how your brand and site fit in.
There are a ton of usability books out there; Steve Krug's "Don't Make Me Think" is a personal favorite of mine. Are there any books that you consider usability bibles? If you could pick only one book for a webmaster as required reading prior to a redesign, what would it be?
Steve's book is great at making the topic approachable, digestible, and practical. If you've read that, I'd recommend "Designing for Interaction" by Dan Saffer. It's the best recent overview of what to think about, what to do, and why it matters when you (re)design. Lots of practical tips and input from design leaders.
It's a field where there are no bibles that dictate usability laws, since there can be many successful designs addressing the same user need. Books I've taken a lot from include: "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum," by Alan Cooper, "The Design of Everyday Things." by Don Norman, "The Humane Interface," by Jef Raskin, "Sources of Power," by Gary Klein (if you want to go more in depth on themes from Gladwell's "Blink" this is great), "The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web," by Peter Lunenfeld. For methodology Jeffrey Rubin's "The Handbook of Usability Testing" is best.
It's been great for us. Even though we did months of research with thousands of people and felt confident we were going in the right direction, it's what happens after launch that matters.
What we were looking for was for users to see the range of services we offer and to start to consider us as a basic, everyday search engine (vs. just for questions). That looks like it's happening, with frequency of visits up, and more and more users trying us out and returning. Nielsen/NetRatings shows our query volume growing 106% year-over-year in July.
A key metric for us to watch is the percentage of our queries that are natural language (vs. keywords), and those are down 33% since launch and dropping. Plus, as I mentioned, the home page's toolbox has resulted in significant increased usage of many of the tools.
We talk with our users all the time, and hopefully listen well. We try to keep customer service, QA, product design, marketing, and user experience research listening to and talking with users and sharing perspectives. Part of my job is to act as a hub for all of those points of view.
After a relaunch, I'd recommend any site to watch anything measurable they can (of course!) to make sure things are moving the right way. With any major change, you probably won't retain 100% of current users, but if you've planned well, you'll attract and retain new, more valuable users to more than compensate. Don't panic, either—this is all iterative and there's a lot in your control, that's part of the fun.
To keep up with the latest developments at Ask.com, grab the feed from Ask's Official Blog.
Rae Hoffman is Principal of Sugarrae SEO Consulting, specializing in organic site auditing and advanced link development strategies. Rae can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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