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Old 07-05-2004   #1
Chris Sherman
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Jakob Nielsen: Search is Poor Because Content is Poor

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen, in a wide-ranging interview, talks about the current state of search, and lists several reasons why "bad search continues to be a problem today." He names several factors, including lack of unification (different knowledge bases), a production rather than consumption approach to information architecture, and one big problem we should all pay attention to:

"...lack of clarity in the content. In other words, the descriptions, the actual information, doesn't clearly answer the questions people have. It's all kind of buried under a huge, thick layer of marketing, you know, of hype, and it's not concrete. [The content] does not explicitly say what you want to know."

http://www.cioinsight.com/print_arti...=129234,00.asp

So -- though we're all to quick to blame the search tools, it's worth keeping in mind their results are only as good as the raw materials they're working with.
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Old 07-05-2004   #2
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and results affected by SEO... unfortunately this means that some quite irrelevant results come high in search engines...
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Old 07-05-2004   #3
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"...lack of clarity in the content. In other words, the descriptions, the actual information, doesn't clearly answer the questions people have. It's all kind of buried under a huge, thick layer of marketing, you know, of hype, and it's not concrete. [The content] does not explicitly say what you want to know."

Wow! That's big news, a past [current??] member of Googles advisory board suggesting that cloaking may be one of the answers to the problems that web search companies face.
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Old 07-05-2004   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by NFFC
"...lack of clarity in the content. In other words, the descriptions, the actual information, doesn't clearly answer the questions people have. It's all kind of buried under a huge, thick layer of marketing, you know, of hype, and it's not concrete. [The content] does not explicitly say what you want to know."

Wow! That's big news, a past [current??] member of Googles advisory board suggesting that cloaking may be one of the answers to the problems that web search companies face.
That's not what he's suggesting at all. His point is that information presented on a web page may not satisfy the information need of the person reading the page. His example:

"I was looking at a hotel, and so the hotel Web site says, "Ample parking is available," but you have to pay for it, in this parking garage located in the same block as the hotel. Well, that's all very nice, but can't you just tell me how many dollars a day it is to park there? Okay, it's downtown. I've got to pay for parking. I can accept that. But how much is it?"

If information is missing, there's no way a search engine can manufacture it to help solve the need of the user. That's the fault of the content creator, not the search engine.
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Old 07-05-2004   #5
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>His point is that information presented on a web page may not satisfy the information need of the person reading the page.

In what way do we disagree?

Is he not saying that the informational needs of the searcher at at odds with the marketing speak of most websites?

Is he not hinting at the fact that a different method of content delivery may best suit the needs of the searcher, thus satisfying the search engine user and at the same time bypassing the restrictions placed on web site creators by the behind the pace marketing departments of many small and large companies?
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Old 07-05-2004   #6
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Google was hoping to help more people afford to be able to create good content with the AdSense program, but from what I have seen it has mostly helped create millions and millions of garbage script driven directory pages which aim to profit from AdSense.

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Old 07-05-2004   #7
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I suspect Nielsen would condemn Melville, too, for failing to simply warn us of the dangers of obsession. What poor Jakob has never understood is that clarity isn't necessarily communication. There will always be room for Moby Dick and good sales copy because, at the end of the day, man does not learn by datum alone.

I think Nielsen's example of a hotel web site not providing more information on off-site parking exemplifies his own lack of understanding of real world business practice. If they list a price and get it wrong, as they inevitably will when a third-party changes their prices and doesn't notify the hotel, they risk losing far more than they have to gain, especially in terms of credibility. They've already gone the extra mile, letting site visitors know parking is available and where to find it. To expect them to list and coordinate the prices of nearby parking and restaurants and attractions is unreasonable.

You want to know how much it costs to park, Jakob? Run another search. Thanks to the hotel web site, you'll know exactly what search terms to use.

I'll be the first to admit there is a ton of badly crafted information out there. But there's some good stuff, too, and I think current SE algorithms are helping all of us differentiate. All of us, that is, except maybe Jakob Nielsen?
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Old 07-05-2004   #8
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Wow. When I search, I've almost always found what I'm looking for, for the past seven years.

That said, Jakob has in the past proclaimed that all website menus must be yellow and on the left, and that "web design is dead", neither of which were true. I would suggest that, by targeting a large-ish segment of the Web industry with yet another argumentative statement fully capable of being debated, he not only attempts to position himself above that industry but gains instant link pop.

And so it goes.
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Old 07-05-2004   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by DianeV
but gains instant link pop
I wonder how often this is considered prior to people making blanket type statements which many people think are outlandish.

the trick is to have enough influence that people will want to link to you because you say something that is out to lunch.

an idea for a domain name? InfluenceRank.com
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Old 07-05-2004   #10
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:-) I don't know Jakob Nielsen, so I have no way of knowing if this is his intention; however, there does seem to be such a pattern to his proclamations.

That said, some of his stuff, particularly things I read very early on, was good and helpful. I just didn't happen to buy the "all links must be underlined and blue" thing.
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Old 07-05-2004   #11
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One should note that Nielsen is mostly commenting about intranets in this article.
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Old 07-06-2004   #12
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And search -- search engines and search on individual websites, including intranets.
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Old 07-06-2004   #13
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The searcher can't expect one search to act as a catchall for all their questions to be answered.
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Old 07-06-2004   #14
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Ok, I'm not much in the habit of defending JN, but as I work in this usability field, I've noticed I've been suggesting more and more to clients to find ways to extend the perimeter of what they're presently offering site visitors.

If you look at his latest Alertbox Beyond the Buy Button in E-Commerce, he says

Quote:
On the Web, your company is completely virtual. People can't touch the product.
How many hotels look outside their own windows and try to imagine what their prospective customers want? Some will offer links to local attractions. This is standard stuff nowadays. But, how much does it cost to park at them? Can you find parking nearby? Are there busy traffic times to avoid? Can you rent a bicycle and ride about town or to a nearby park? Do they have bikes with toddler seats so you can bring your little one? Is there a number to call for all these inquiries?

Booking reservations meets the goal of the web site. But, supporting objectives can boost that number. Is a user task to simply find out the cost of a room or learn whether it comes with a blow dryer or Internet connection?

Or, would a page or two that gets into the desires of a potential customer increase bookings? Do they desire a relaxed visit? If so, what are the ways the hotel and surroundings make this possible? This is the desirability aspect. The part where the goal is to engage the user.

It's the undecided vote you're after here.

Nielsen writes, in his latest Alertbox

Quote:
The concept of total user experience says that you must consider everything that the user encounters -- not just the screen designs.
This is where task scenerios come in handy during the planning stage of a site design. And it's not impossible to implement. The pool supply company I buy from sends a catalog to the house every month. When you order online, they honor whatever price they printed in ANY catalog. So, if you have the one from February and the item was on sale then, you enter the code for that month and that price, and they honor it.

What I think Nielsen is trying to express is that he was a user and wanted something. Every complaint about a site failure or the failure of search engines to deliver precisely what we want (another area of concern for people), is an opportunity for somebody to do it better, and get that sale.

<<<Added: For the engine side, a page on the subject of parking fees produced by a hotel would be helpful. The searcher types in "parking fees around the Washington Hilton Towers hotel" and if anyone thought to write one, it would come in the search. Heck, sell ads on it, for the surrounding businesses for that matter >>>

Kim Krause

Last edited by cre8pc : 07-06-2004 at 03:18 PM.
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Old 07-06-2004   #15
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>I've noticed I've been suggesting more and more to clients to find ways to >extend the perimeter of what they're presently offering site visitors.

We are going in the exact opposite direction, our own sites though, don't do clients.

>How many hotels look outside their own windows and try to imagine what their prospective customers want?

80% of their customers want a specific room on a specific date in a specific location, thats all. Imho the job of a useability "expert" is to concentrate on that 80% and deliver them the easiest way to acheive their aims, the hard work 20% best be prepared to work hard and dig if they are looking for more.

> The concept of total user experience says that you must consider everything that the user encounters

I think its very easy to not respect the search user when we work in the search industry. I believe that the vast majority already know exactly what they are looking for *before* they arrive at our sites, its our job to focus on that and deliver the exactness and hence simplicity that they are demanding, the search term is a huge clue.

Wouldn't it be just great if a user could search for say "hotel anytown" and get the bare bones if the visited your site, if they searched for "hotel anytown with onsite parking" they would land at the same page but with additional parking information offered.

Wouldn't that be great?
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Old 07-06-2004   #16
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Imho the job of a useability "expert" is to concentrate on that 80% and deliver them the easiest way to acheive their aims, the hard work 20% best be prepared to work hard and dig if they are looking for more.
No argument there. But, I'm interested in getting that 20% and finding all the ways to do that.

Using another example, I know of a bed and breakfast site that spent the money for SEO and did well with that. So, she had a usability review done and made the necessary repairs for that. But, sales are still down. So, she brainstormed and found a whole bunch of ways to attract interest in the surrounding area. She put herself in her potential customers' shoes. She even offered a discount to attendees for the next SEO conference in California, since her place is nearby.

She built the site for that first 80%, but to stay in business for the long-term, with return satisfied customers while attracting new ones...that's where the real fun is. Well, for me anyway

Kim
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Old 07-07-2004   #17
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Quote:
The searcher can't expect one search to act as a catchall for all their questions to be answered.
I think he/she can within certain industries.

The example used was a hotel site, which typically, provides lots of info on services outside it's four walls. The fact the parking garage/lot was adjacent to and used by the hotel made it one of the services they should have listed. I'll betcha that parking lot info is listed within the hotel itself somewhere...with the concierge or on their sales collateral. Parking is a huge issue everywhere you go. For a hotel to NOT provide that kind of info (content) is a dis-service to the hotel guest.

If the site had been a dog clinic or a hair salon then no, I don't think the content needs to be a catchall. But for some topics....yes. Providing full, accurate and relevant info/content is just good marketing.

Quote:
80% of their customers want a specific room on a specific date in a specific location, thats all. Imho the job of a useability "expert" is to concentrate on that 80% and deliver them the easiest way to acheive their aims, the hard work 20% best be prepared to work hard and dig if they are looking for more.
I guess I'm old school or something because I don't believe in making it hard for people to buy anything.
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Old 07-07-2004   #18
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Quote:
Originally Posted by cre8pc
I know of a bed and breakfast site that spent the money for SEO and did well with that. So, she had a usability review done and made the necessary repairs for that. But, sales are still down. So, she brainstormed and found a whole bunch of ways to attract interest in the surrounding area. She put herself in her potential customers' shoes. She even offered a discount to attendees for the next SEO conference in California, since her place is nearby.
Sounds to me like she should be congratulated for creative marketing ideas, but not for making the site any more usable.

I'm a big believer that companies need to focus on what they do best. Not at the expense of innovation or creativity, but you have to satisfy your core customers and their core needs. I don't need or expect to know the cost of nearby public parking when I'm at a hotel web site.

In fact, I was using a hotel web site about a year ago and in the "Nearby Attractions" area they mentioned that there's a great golf course across the street, and hotel patrons get a discount, and here's the link to the golf course web site and their phone number to make a tee-time. The link didn't work ... the phone number had been changed ... and once I finally got through to contacting the course, I learned the discount was no longer available. What a waste of my time. Simply mentioning the course's location was what I needed; they tried to go beyond my core needs, and they failed.
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Old 07-07-2004   #19
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Will search improve... obviously... but as many of the previous comments have pointed out - there are many satisfied users and there are others who see that the results themselves may try a little too hard.
True there will eventually be an intuitive search engine... but for that to be achieved there will be the need to store use patterns or create a profile or require possibly 2-3 fields filled in... given the limited resources (a spreadsheet of pages and varied ways of measuring them) the state of search engines right now is pretty solid.
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Old 07-08-2004   #20
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Interesting discussion, but has anyone considered that there are many different kinds of infromation that different searchers require, with my premise being that you will never satisfy 100% the needs of everyone, so you should first concentrate on making it easy for the majority of your customers, then expand the circle as time and circumstance permit.

Using the Hotel Parking search as an example, anyone visiting for a short time a large city from out of town may not want parking at all (and IMO anyone visiting Downtown New York should not be worrying about parking but the availability of taxis, or the distance to the nearest public transport) so if the majority of the customers do not need parking, why put a lot of details about the parking, the rates, etc that is extraneous to their needs?

IMO it may be just as much a mistake to try to be everything to everyone, as it is to miss out on some small details for the minority.
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