Search Engine Findability Studies

February 4, 2013

Usability testing is a common approach for assessing the performance of Web sites and applications. However, one important aspect of user experience that traditional testing does not address is assessing the path to a Web site. Responsibility for this has typically fallen into the domain of search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM)—and often, the person who looks after those concerns is not the same person who is ultimately responsible for a site’s or application’s user experience.

Recently, Jeff Sauro wrote an article titled “How to Measure Findability.” His article explains a process for measuring the findability of items on a Web site. In contrast, search engine findability is about measuring the ease with which people can find your Web site, as well as understanding the paths they take to it.

In this article, I’d first like to explain the importance of search engine findability in managing a successful Web site, then describe my approach to search engine findability, and demonstrate why I think this approach is a valuable addition to research methods like usability testing and Web analytics.

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The Limitations of Web Analytics in Determining Findability

Web analytics can provide a lot of information, including how people enter a Web site—whether directly or from a referring site or search engine—which pages are the top entry pages, and which keywords people have used to get to the site. But what about all of the keywords that people have used to look for your product or service with a search engine whose results didn’t include your site? Web analytics cannot tell you this.

Web analytics provide only the keywords that were used by people who actually visited your site—typically, keywords that your own SEO and SEM efforts have generated. Web analytics do not show the keywords of those who searched, but did not find your Web site.

Finding Out What Keywords Searchers Use

Experimentally conducting searches yourself shows only how well you’re able to find your site using the keywords you can think of. Other people would probably search using different keywords—especially those who are not familiar with your company or its jargon or perhaps don’t know a lot about your products or services.

Imagine if you were able to gather the keywords of all searchers to refine and improve your SEO and SEM campaigns. Your site would no doubt receive many more visitors.

“Findability precedes usability in the alphabet and on the Web. You can’t use what you can’t find.”—Peter Morville, in Ambient Findability

So, the question is: how can you find out the keywords that were used by people who searched for, but did not find your site? Conduct a search engine findability study.

Conducting a Search Engine Findability Study

When my company recently ran a search engine findability study online, using Loop11, we explored the different keywords that people might use when looking for a credit card provider and investigated just how people use search engines when they want to obtain a new credit card. Here is the process we followed for our study.

Step 1: Finding Out What Search Terms People Use

Following the introduction and instructions pages, our study began with the open question shown in Figure 1, asking participants to list the search terms that they would use if they were looking for a company that could provide a credit card that would meet their own current needs.

Figure 1—What search terms would a participant use?
What search terms would a participant use?

The responses to this question provided a list of the search terms that participants would use to complete this task.

In studies that you run, you’ll likely find that many of the keywords participants use are ones you’re already targeting in your SEO and SEM campaigns. But you’ll probably find a few surprises, too—terms that you hadn’t thought people would use to find your product or service. These are the keywords that are likely to transform the success of your SEO and SEM campaigns, because it is just as unlikely that your competitors are targeting them.

Step 2: Searching for a Service Provider

Once participants had answered our initial question, the only task we asked them to perform in this study was to use Google, shown in Figure 2, or another search engine to conduct a search for a credit card provider.

Figure 2—Searching for a credit card provider on Google
Searching for a credit card provider on Google

Loop11 tracked the behavior of each participant—from performing a search on the search engine’s home page to viewing the results on a search results page, then navigating to any Web sites that a participant decided to visit. Optionally, you can use Loop11 in conjunction with OpenHallway to generate videos for later review.

Most of the time during usability studies, usability professionals observe and collect data about the behaviorĀ of participants who are already on and using a particular Web site. In contrast, the data that you can collect through this type of search task can help you to determine just how findable your Web site is and illustrate the sometimes convoluted journeys people take just to find your site. In the studies we have run, the results have been incredibly insightful.

Step 3: Asking Follow-Up Questions

After participants had completed the search task, we asked them a number of follow-up questions, as follows:

  • What was the name of the financial institution that offered a credit card that best met your current needs?
  • What was the reason you selected this company over others that appeared in the search results?
  • On a scale of zero to ten, how likely is it that you would recommend this company to a friend or colleague?

Step 4: Calculating a Net Promoter Score

The results of Question 3, in combination with the results of Question 1, gave us the ability to calculate a Net Promoter Score (NPS) for each financial institution that participants mentioned in Question 1.

An NPS is a metric that you can use to gauge the loyalty of a firm’s customer relationships. This metric provides an alternative to asking traditional customer-satisfaction questions. Based on participants’ responses to your questions, you can categorize people as belonging to one of three groups: Promoters (9–10 rating), Passives (7–8 rating), and Detractors (0–6 rating) This helps you to measure customer satisfaction.


The results of a search engine findability study will give you some insights—possibly some unexpected insights—into the process people go through when trying to locate a Web site or application.

In particular, although your Web site visitors represent just a fraction of the searchers who need the service that you provide, search engine findability studies can help you to discover many more of the keywords that spring to users’ minds when they create their search queries. Implementing changes to your SEO and SEM campaigns according to the findings of a search engine findability study should result in a substantial increase in the qualified traffic to your or your client’s Web site.

Although usability professionals generally focus on people’s experience when they’re already on a Web site, I believe search engine findability studies would be a valuable addition to the research methods that we currently employ in managing a successful Web site. 

CEO at Loop11

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Toby BiddleWith a background in market research, Toby has been a UX professional for more than 15 years. He focuses on bringing affordable, quantitative user experience testing to the masses. As a result, Toby has created Loop11, a Web application that lets anyone conduct their own online usability testing studies, without any need for moderators or swanky labs.  Read More

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