17 January 2012

Web usability - non relevant links

This article was first published on 5 August 2005.

Web usability - non relevant links

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions", or so it is said. Perhaps the saying should be,"dissemble at thy risk, for blindness is not contagious".

Okay, that’s the arty-nonsense out of the way, but the thesis of this article does strike me as one that is becoming increasingly relevant. When I use search engines, I expect to get a list of documents that may (or may not) answer my concern. I’m experienced enough at using search engines to know that I will likely encounter pages that I don’t want or need, but that’s okay as long as I can access pages that I do need.

The problem is though that finding information that I need can sometimes be harder than it should be because lots of folks out there want to help me. Or rather because they think they have a great business plan that just stops me from doing what I need to do.

Try this: search for a shop that sells computers in Cardiff. I’m interested in what search terms people use with which search engines. Feel free to leave a comment if you want describing what you did and what you came up with.

I’ve tried the same thing myself. By coincidence, I live near City Road in Cardiff which has more computer shops than just about any other road in the city. They are all within easy walking distance of me, though not too close so it can be a hassle for me to go out and wear out my shoe leather.

So instead, if I want some computer hardware, I turn to a search engine and enter “computer shop cardiff". The problem I have is with is the responses that Google responds with (as I said, I’m interested in what search terms other people would use using other search engines, so enter a comment if you want).

What I get are pages and pages of directories, often designed to offer access to “local” facilities, shops, businesses, etc. These are not much use to me: after all, consider the logic. I go to a database of possible websites, enter a search phrase and receive back… pages from other databases.

These directories wouldn’t be such a loss if they actually had links to the websites of the shops, but they rarely do - most often an address (which I know) or a telephone number (not much good on a Sunday when I usually browse for this kind of stuff), but not a website address.

This is not good - I know for a fact that these shops have their own websites. I’ve been to them before, but I never bookmarked them anywhere. While I can locate just about anything I want for my academic work, I cannot find the website of a shop just around the corner!

Craig’s List is a bit of a commercial success story and best of luck to them. The problem as I see it is that many are trying to copy the idea to see if the Craig's List implementation could be improved. If you do have a “local"list of businesses of your own, please remember that not everybody is after just addresses and telephone numbers. Try to offer value , maybe like reviews of local businesses or facilities. If the public won’t do them for you, go out and try yourself - after all, the businesses are local aren’t they? Even just a telephone call with a slightly awkwards question can give you some insight that you can pass on to your hopeful readers. The important thing is that you must offer something useful to people. Don’t try to hold on to customers by having them click through pages only to encounter the same useless information time after time. The best websites are those that offer something of value to their customers. If your content is good enough, they will come back and keep coming back to you. If it isn’t, they will all (eventually) just walk away.

Just don’t try to be the next “Yellow Pages". It’s already been done and there are already too many people trying to catch the boat that has already sailed.

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