Findability, Orphan of the Web Design Industry

by Aarron Walter

40 Reader Comments

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  1. I feel at a core level SEO and findablity is same. It is just that few people have abused the system and it got bed name.

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  2. Everything concerning optimization, be it SEO or tinkering with YSlow, needs to be done carefully, but after everything else is done. Well written code and content already make your site usable as well as findable in most cases, so don’t overdo it.

    A List Apart got where it is now by regularly publishing quality content. I’d imagine that most of the page views come from direct links or bookmarks, but I originally found the site through Google while searching for CSS tutorials, and I believe none of the keywords used were in the title or meta tag or in the URL.

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  3. … but I don’t think it’s really a different entity (as long as your site is reasonably usable too)

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  4. And from each criterion I will attempt to implement functionality to my future website. I still have to give the idea more thought, though what could be more simpler?

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  5. I think the difference I see is that ‘SEO’ is aimed at driving traffic to your site, to boost rankings and revenue, whereas ‘findability’ is enabling people who want the content on your site to get to it.

    Yes, a significant part of this involves getting high SERP rankings, but it also includes factors such as:

    • descriptive search results, so that people can see exactly what they’re getting from a link
    • getting links (natural and search-engine) to point to deep pages rather than the home page, so visitors can jump straight to the meaty content
    • site navigability, so that visitors can find the content they’re after, no matter what part of your site they arrive at.

    I suppose the flip-side is that with findability, the customer-focused approach, we only want visitors whose needs are specifically matched by our content – whereas SEO, the website-focused approach – wants to just grab armfuls of visitors, no matter what they are actually looking for.

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  6. I suppose the flip-side is that with findability, the customer-focused approach, we only want visitors whose needs are specifically matched by our content — whereas SEO, the website-focused approach — wants to just grab armfuls of visitors, no matter what they are actually looking for.

    Nicely said, Stephen. (I wonder if some SEO practitioners would disagree?)

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  7. This was a really good read. I think, if nothing else, it put a lot of the more important components of a successful web project in one place. In the past, a lot of web teams I’ve worked with had very isolated roles. The PM just mediated updates from the team to the client, developers took deliverable and developed with their heads down, designers just handed off designs and moved on. But this article really seems to point out that everyone one a team is interdependent and the most important thing is to work together to create the best project possible. I dig it.

    As for the content of the article, I know it’s something that I’ve come across a lot in the industry and have had a hard time selling to a team, maybe that’s my fault. So you get stuck in with the attitude of “findability (or whatever the topic) is really important, but I can’t get any buy-in, so I’ll just have to try and do it myself.” And this creates the “heads-down developer” – doing something important like adding in Microformats (for example) and trying to cram it into the deadline because there was no time allocated for it.

    I’m definitely going to save this article and try to get my team to read it over. Good read, thanks Aarron.

    my2cents

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  8. I’m not sure I understand the distinction between findability and usability. If you can’t find things you need, your site’s not usable.

    The domains of findability and usability overlap in that both seek to help users find content within a site, but findability extends further to encompass methods that help users find the site and re-discover it later. Of course, SEO helps users find a site as does publishing your content on social networking sites. You can also let your audience spread the word for you by providing viral marketing tools (tell a friend, user generated reviews, etc). Using microformats to markup your content makes it easy for users to move important info somewhere they’ll find it later.

    A List Apart got where it is now by regularly publishing quality content. I’d imagine that most of the page views come from direct links or bookmarks, but I originally found the site through Google while searching for CSS tutorials, and I believe none of the keywords used were in the title or meta tag or in the URL.

    You’re absolutely right, Kari. Quality content is the bedrock of findability. Generally when you’re writing content that solves a problem, entertains, or otherwise serves the needs of your audience you’ll attract the traffic you seek. There’s no need to stuff your pages with keywords, but it does help to research audience behaviors to see how they search so key areas like the title tag and headings connect with your audience. We already research our users and often create elaborate personas. Why not consider the psychology and behavior of search?

    —Stephen: 10 4 good buddy.

    —Tim: Thanks for the kind words.

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  9. I had a discussion with a co-worker earlier today about site maps and was wondering if anyone could provide one genuinely good reason why a site should have a sitemap.

    I mentioned findability-related benefits like making the site structure transparent for users; providing users a quick overview of site content; and that it acts as a safety net in case the site search fails.

    All these excuses failed to convince my co-worker the use of a site map and was left with her saying something along the lines of “I don’t think I’ve ever used a site map before” and “If I can’t find what I’m looking for with the search, then I’d leave the site”.

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  10. I hoped Findability might be personified as someone more aggressive, waving his hands in the air, and not so passive. However, it really does take a lot of effort from everyone involved on the team to make this guy possible. Findability is very sensitive, and one little change in the UI or keyword density might break his heart and drive him away whimpering.

    I also agree that A List Apart knows Findability very well. I’m glad the site isn’t muddled with bad content, like a bad made-for-adsense Website. So many enemies of Findability exist today! He sure is exploited for cash, poor guy.

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  11. Aside form the convenience it offers users who’ve lost their way or are in search of something specific, a sitemap page provides search engines a central location from which to index the site.

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  12. I’ve noticed active/avid internet users are comfortable with search as navigation whereas you more infrequent or “old school” audience is not. A sitemap gives those folks who just plain want to see a map their tool of choice. On my latest design I’ve been offering a site-map-like ‘navigate’ link which displays a streamlined site map in a modal dialog box. Feedback has been great so far…

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  13. Thanks for the input Aarron. I’ll make sure to add that to my list of reasons for opting for a sitemap.

    @*mahalie mahalie*, is your sitemap similar to that seen on “NY Mag”:http://nymag.com/ ? Also, when you speak of feedback, are you referring to what people say? or is it based on actual site statistics?

    Thanks again guys for the input.

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  14. this text here is just amazing! One of the most important themes since I started my blogs!

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  15. No one really gets me (from the article)
    I’m not sure I understand the distinction between findability and usability (from first comment)
    I think I got the point of the article and like the ideas. However, I’d preferred less fairy tale but more structured explanation of what findability really is, so readers could find more interest in it.

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  16. if a site sees search engine as its main (or sole) source of traffic, then findability = SEO. However there are many ways for content to be discovered completely outside the world of search engines.
    I work with academic content. So the people who are likely to be interested in what we publish are not going to look for it on google, but rather on specialized sites, in journal bibliographies, in scientific bookmark sharing sites, etc.
    so we try to make sure that all content is correctly described, not necessarily to be picked up by search engines, which happens as a side benefit, but rather to make our content easy to find.

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  17. The acronym SEO appears 7 times in the article (and numerous times in the discussion). What does it mean?

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  18. “Findability is to Search Engine Optimization (SEO) as “web standards”? is to “table layouts.”?

    The analogy from the intro of this article doesn’t make any sense, especially given the response from the author in the comment section. Is SEO a bad example of Findability? Faindability and SEO are methods to help user to find content. Though in recent years, the two have more overlapping.

    I’m not sure why the distinction between findability and usability. Findability is a subset of usability. A well designed site with usability(navigation, visual cue, word choice etc) in mind will help user to find content easier, present and return. Could you elaborate on your answer below?

    “The domains of findability and usability overlap in that both seek to help users find content within a site, but findability extends further to encompass methods that help users find the site and re-discover it later”

    As for “Quality content is the bedrock of findability:” while i agree with this statement, however it’s a different subject matter from usability/findability jargons. There are sites i frequent for pure content purpose. These sites are so poorly designed in terms of coding, graphic, and usability. A site with great content will get a user base regardless, not because how “usable” it is. The exposure/traffic is gained from the community, than the site design/advertising itself. It’s the same reason why i go to this rundown restaurant located in a hard to find spot. i’d sacrifice convenience over great food. yes, i’d prefer if it were nicer decorated and easier to get to, but since that has no effect on the food, i don’t care.

    Lastly, as for Findability, i find this article to be much more effective (less fluff, more substance)

    http://www.alistapart.com/articles/ambientfindability

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  19. The analogy from the intro of this article doesn’t make any sense

    It’s what we call a “fun” analogy, not meant to be over-scrutinized or taken too seriously.

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  20. Is SEO a bad example of Findability?

    Nope, SEO is an integral part of findability (“here’s an illustration that may help explain”:http://aarronwalter.com/presentations/sxsw08/pix/findability-flower.png). Historically many in the industry have hyper-focused on SEO and not given consideration to the many other ways in which we can help our audience connect with our content (see my earlier comment for examples). This article is not advocating disregard of SEO. On the contrary, it’s recommending we take a more holistic approach to findability to integrate the many sub-disciplines of our industry to better connect with our users.

    Sorry you didn’t connect with the metaphor. As Jeffrey said, it was meant to add humor. If you’re in search of practical solutions to make your sites more findable, that’s what my book is all about.

    As for “Quality content is the bedrock of findability:”? while i agree with this statement, however it’s a different subject matter from usability/findability jargons. There are sites i frequent for pure content purpose.

    Me too! And wouldn’t it be great if those sites packed with valuable content were more findable so others can find them too? In my view, we need to stop thinking of our craft from the perspective of our compartments and start seeing the big picture. Why can’t we publish sites that have great content, are built semantically, are usable, and wonderfully findable all at once? As someone commented earlier, A List Apart is a perfect example. There’s no need to sacrifice or settle for anything less.

    Lastly, as for Findability, i find this article to be much more effective (less fluff, more substance) http://www.alistapart.com/articles/ambientfindability.

    You’ve got good taste! Peter Morville’s article is a perfect compliment to these ideas.

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  21. … but i couldn’t get past the stupid orphan story .. i was reading it, going yah yah yah ok ok get to the good stuff …
    i didn’t make it.
    what a ridiculous way to start an article like this. i don’t read things like this over my evening coffee, this is work-related. i was hoping i’d learn something, but the bs got in the way.
    what’s that they say in your rather unique country? “cut to the chase” !!

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  22. @gene lu
    bq. All these excuses failed to convince my co-worker the use of a site map and was left with her saying something along the lines of “I don’t think I’ve ever used a site map before”? and “If I can’t find what I’m looking for with the search, then I’d leave the site”?.

    Yes, but fortunately there are a lot of people out there who aren’t as lazy or helpless as your colleague.

    Another classic case of “I don’t use this, therefore no-one uses this”, and as wrong here as anywhere. For people who are prepared to use a couple of brain cells and a modicum of effort, a (well-designed) sitemap can be very useful – both for locating a particular page/section, and also for understanding the scope and remit of a website.

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  23. Getting the entire agency on board with these types of issues is such an uphill battle.

    This is a great guide to start with though. Thanks.

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  24. I appreciate your discussion on the issue of “findability” because it focuses on the basic reason people use the web – to find information. As web designers and developers, it’s so easy to get caught up in making the site look good and other factors, we can lose track of the fact that people are looking for information.

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  25. The article was so dense and intimidatingly structured that I didn’t bother reading it!
    An article about findability should be simple to digest, similar to “Don’t Make Me Think”:http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Make-Me-Think-Usability/dp/0321344758/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1206726043&sr=8-1&t=katwebdes-20 by Steve Krug.

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  26. Perfect starting-guide. (:

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  27. This is how “tech” writing should be: fun, easy and be read in 5 minutes withouth a headache

    cheers

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  28. A well designed page allows for appropriate xxxxxxxability.

    Replace xxxxxxx with access, find, use, whatever.

    Though I really believe putting words on things does help to understand them but insisting on a distinction between findability and usability for more than about 3 seconds is a waste of time.  And I have not yet met an accessibility (meaning for handicapped folks like colorblind me) issue whose correct solution was not a generic usability improvement. 

    I need to learn how to generate site maps since they matter for SEO purposes.

    And hide them from visitors.  My interpretation is that I need not confront my visitors with my sitemap.

    To me they are a sign that the designer knows the site is hard to navigate and that visitors are going to get lost.  I always thought the ‘home’ link was the best ‘get me unlost’ tool. When I see ‘site map’, I am likely to ‘get lost’ in the ‘scram, go find a well designed page’ sense unless I am really compelled to use the site.

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  29. I tend to agree with Brandon that focusing overmuch on usability vs findability might be putting too fine a point on the difference between them, but i do think there is something to be said for a real difference.

    I work in instructional design, and one of the things we spend a lot of time thinking about is how to make information meaningful to the learner. The best way I know how to do that is to map information to a learner’s internal landscape—to make what she already knows about the world apply to what I’m telling her.

    Findability is rather like that in my mind. A site may be perfectly and logically usable, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the structure maps to my landscape—it doesn’t mean that it necessarily makes sense to me, based on how I would have organized it. So findability seem to be about creating ways for different people with different approaches to content/information to come upon the same material in a way that is logically or inherently meaningful to them, whether that means tagging content in various ways or providing alternate navigation sturctures, etc.

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  30. there i want to say it,s a great article.

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  31. “The domains of findability and usability overlap in that both seek to help users find content within a site, but findability extends further to encompass methods that help users find the site and re-discover it later”?
    I love the article. It explains beautifully the importance of findability and the range of people that have to contribute to making it happen. However something I would like to add to the responsiblities of the developer is providing readable URLs. URL’s that give the user an idea of what the subject matter or content of a certain page is so that he or she can choose the right URL from the list of search results. It certainly is one of the “methods that help users find the site and re-discover it later”? don’t you think?

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  32. The emerging world of AJAX and ‘Web 2’ sharply bring into focus the willingness of too many webmasters to sacrifice both findability and usability, apparently in exchange for dramatic effect.
    We have had the same issues, and continue to have them, with Flash and Java.

    I’ve just spent the last year part-time developing an AJAX solution to navigation, in the hope that the promise of interactivity is not lost from the webspace to yet another plugin technology, as a side effect of poor findability.

    HTML 5 gives a sniff of a promise to AJAX and navigation, but we’ll be a long time getting there in practice, even if all the major browser vendors cooperate.

    A further issue in usability and findability in AJAX is overweight applications. The web in spite of broadband is still, and will always be as a serial network, subject to the speed constraint of the slowest link, often grinding down below dail-up speeds.

    Add a heavy application, whether it’s AJAX, Flash or Java, and you’re lost for a very long time between where you’ve been and where you might get. Where you are at present still gets very boring after about 10 seconds.

    We should not lose sight of the time domain in findability! Users simply bail out altogether before about 20 seconds.

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  33. After reading this article I was compelled to write and say how much I enjoyed it.  You had some great insights and I believe that all people who work in our field should read this artice.

    I know I’m going to share this article with my Creative Design team.

    I also enjoyed the article from an artistic stand point.  Often I find the only time I have to read about new ideas, thoughts, and opinions in our field is over my lunch break.  So, it was with welcome surprise that this article wasn’t just another dry reading.

    Great job.

    You can expect one more customer for you book sales.

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  34. This article was a little long winded but the point is well taken. Findability and SEO are NOT the same. In fact some ranking fanatics can actually hurt a site’s findabilty by focusing too much on boosting their Google ranking with irrelevant keywords. High rankings on search engines are nice but they don’t always guarantee success.

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  35. A basic understanding of optimization is important for a copywriter to be able to write text which is organized in a manner which google is known to respond positively to.  The most influential writing for optimization, has actually not been optimized in the sense of keyword density, but so interesting, that it became a magnet for bringing traffic into a site.

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  36. I’d agree that high rankings on search engines don’t always guarantee success. On the other hand, low rankings on search engines can pretty much guarantee an ongoing ad spend directly to search engines, and that’s pretty much forever.

    Of course, there are always other sites linking to the website, but that means that visitors necessarily need to visit those sites just to find the link.

    Can this be an optimum scenario? I think not. I think we need to deal with the medium with which we’re working, and not just part of it.

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  37. hey – great post.  this is the stuff i struggle with every day.  clients seem to get it when we discuss the nuts and bolts of SEO – you have to create better content and improve the interface elements of your site to improve conversions… for people and crawlers.  but agencies focused on whizzy things and rigid project management schemas seem to have a tougher time selling it in…. it doesn’t really make sense, unless the be all and end all of a site build is to design it, deliver it and then cut and run.  basically, when content production’s concerned, then i think most agencies aren’t built to hold the hands of clients and see them through the lifecycle of a site for the long term.  more content savvy and consultancy is needed!  you’ve kind of hit the nail on the head…

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  38. An excellent article that makes one think of how they build their web site. I would just like an example of how it works in practice.

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  39. Great comment Stephen Down. I would say that your comment is fairly accurate for most people who do SEO. To truly take SEO to the next level you need to be worried about those people who are your true target market. If in SEO you are just trying to get numbers up and are strictly getting more and more people to the site without having those people be truly legitimate customers you aren’t doing the site much benefit. We want true conversions. In order to get your true conversions FINDABILITY and SEO need to fused into one major effort. Findability really is important and should be taken seriously.

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  40. Updating sitemaps can become such a hassle, but the truth is that they are still kind in the findability game

    Whem I’m using wordpress I always use a dynamic plugin that updates and pings search engines after each post! Ahh.. wordpress spoils us

    Nowadays it’s almost impossible to have a wordpress blog that google DOESN’T FIND automatically after a week, however it’s still vital to submit sitemaps

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