Ambient Findability: Findability Hacks

A note from the editors: A List Apart is pleased to present the following excerpt from Mr. Morville’s new book, Ambient Findability.

So, enough with balance already. While I admit findability is not the only important element of the user experience, I’m not ready to concede its primacy online. I’m sure we can all agree with the basic truth expressed by this ancient proverb:

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Findability Precedes Usability
In the Alphabet and on the Web
You Can’t Use What You Can’t Find

Seriously, findability is one of the most thorny problems in web design. This is due in part to the inherent ambiguity of semantics and structure. We label and categorize things in so many ways that retrieval is difficult at best. But that’s only the half of it. The most formidable challenges stem from its cross-functional, interdisciplinary nature. Findability defies classification. It flows across the borders between design, engineering, and marketing. Everybody is responsible, and so we run the risk that nobody is accountable.

In fact, in most organizations, findability falls through the cracks. Web site search engines return lousy results because designers and engineers don’t collaborate to fine-tune the relevance ranking algorithms. Dazzling product catalogs wallow in obscurity because marketing and engineering can’t work together on search engine optimization. And navigation systems fall short because information architects and brand architects fail to map marketing jargon to the vocabulary of users. Time after time, findability falls through the cracks between roles and responsibilities, and everybody loses.

For all these reasons, findability merits special attention. At the enterprise level, we must find ways to cultivate cross-functional collaboration. And at the individual level, we must have the curiosity and courage to wander beyond the safety of our job titles into unmapped, interdisciplinary territory. In the spirit of the hack, in the positive rather than pejorative sense, findability invites clever solutions to interesting problems. Hackers don’t worry so much about org charts. They just get the job done. In this sense, we need more findability hackers who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.

For instance, many professionals in the design community have maintained an unhealthy distance from the practice of search engine marketing, which includes search engine advertising (SEA) and search engine optimization (SEO). We view SEO as too technical and write off SEA as marketing’s responsibility. And we keep the whole topic at arm’s length to avoid being tainted by association with unethical search engine marketing practices such as cloaking, keyword stuffing, and domain spamming. And yet, this field offers huge opportunities for us to connect our users with the content they seek. SEO, in particular, is interwoven with usability, information architecture, copywriting, and other elements of the user experience. As the SEO expert Shari Thurow notes:

One of the most important components of a successful search engine marketing campaign is the link component, also referred to as site architecture. Site architecture refers to a web site navigation scheme, individual page layout, and how directories are set up on your web server. Site architecture is very important because the search engine spiders must be able to find and record the keyword-rich text on your web pages.


In fact, we must give credit to the pioneers of search engine marketing for taking a practical, cross-disciplinary approach to web findability and turning it into a multi-billion dollar industry in less than a decade. Leading firms, such as iProspect, have made a compelling case for return on investment in findability, citing statistics such as:

  • Second only to email, the most popular activity for U.S. Internet users is search—an estimated 40% of them are using the Web to make product or service purchases.
  • Consumers are five times more likely to purchase products or services after finding a web site through a search engine than through a banner advertisement.
  • Over half of all Internet users never go past the first two pages of search results.

And these firms haven’t let functional or disciplinary boundaries get in the way of solving problems for customers and users. Just consider the following SEO guidelines

  • Determine the most common keywords and phrases (with optimal conversion rates) that users from your target audience are entering into search engines.
  • Include those keywords and phrases in your visible body text, navigation links, page headers and titles, metadata tags, and alternative text for graphic images.
  • Proceed cautiously (or not at all) when considering the use of drop-down menus, image maps, frames, dynamic URLs, JavaScript, DHTML, Flash, and other coding approaches that may prevent a search engine spider from crawling your pages.
  • Create direct links from your home page, sitemap, and navigation system to important destination pages to increase their page popularity ranking.
  • Use RSS feeds with ample backlinks to your site’s target destinations to encourage subscriptions and visits and boost organic search rankings.
  • Reduce HTML code bloat and overall file size by embracing web standards to ensure accessibility and improve keyword density.

SEO can certainly be viewed as part of marketing. Information search is a key component of the consumer buying process. Marketing textbooks, using the models in Figures 5-10 and 5-11, describe the opportunity represented by an “aroused consumer” engaged in an “active information search.”


Figure 5-10. Five stage model of the consumer buying process (adapted from Kotler, p. 204)

Figure 5-10. Five stage model of the consumer buying process (adapted from Kotler, p. 204)

As marketing guru Philip Kotler notes, “a company must strategize to get its brand into the prospect’s awareness set, consideration set, and choice set.”


Figure 5-11. The consumer decision making process (adapted from Kotler, p. 205)

Figure 5-11. The consumer decision making process (adapted from Kotler, p. 205)

And yet, to view SEO as the sole purview of marketing is a huge mistake. For starters, design and engineering must be involved in the work anyway, since much of the optimization (such as editing content and code) cannot be easily outsourced.

But it’s more than that. Connecting users with the content and services we design and build is part of our broader mission. It’s not good enough to create a great product and expect someone else to worry about how people will find it. Together with form and function, findability is a required element of good design and engineering. I relentlessly make this case to government agencies and nonprofits that don’t have marketing departments. They tend to shy away from SEO as overly commercial, but they’re missing a great opportunity to fulfill their mission by helping people find what they need.

Also, while search engine optimization is obviously an important factor in defining the first step into a consumer’s awareness set, findability plays a role in each and every step, from problem recognition to purchase decision to post-purchase behavior. Findability does not fit neatly inside boxes. Findability is more about connecting the boxes.

But perhaps we’re expecting too much by asking people to cross functional and disciplinary boundaries in such entrepreneurial fashion. We may ultimately need to fill the findability gap by editing the org chart, as a few pioneers have already done. For instance, at Telecom New Zealand, a daring information architect named Michael Williams decided that “findability engineer” better described his role and made the case for a change. This was initially regarded by HR as a “very irregular job title,” but Michael was persuasive, and the new title was eventually conferred. According to his manager, Sally Myles, this change has generated positive results, including:

  • It’s a conversation starter and creates the opportunity to explain the relationships between information architecture, search, usability, and personalization.
  • It has raised Michael’s profile within the organization as the findability expert.
  • It reminds the team that our overall goal is to help our users find what they need.

Hewlett-Packard has taken findability a step further by defining a “Findability Group” that includes an interdisciplinary team responsible for user interface design, information architecture, and search, thereby creating a vital bridge across vertical silos. Perhaps we will see more findability engineers and findability teams in the coming years.

Of course, companies that create a “Department of Findability” will run the risk of building yet another vertical silo when they should be using findability to get horizontal. What we really need is more informed, findability-aware participants in the existing roles within design, engineering, and marketing. Now, that would be a big step forward.

As HP co-founder David Packard famously remarked, “Marketing is far too important to be left only to the marketing department.” In my opinion, so is findability. But we race ahead of reality. For now, findability is in the hands of daring individuals with a cross-disciplinary approach to problem solving. For now, findability is just an elegant hack.


Want to read more?#section2

O’Reilly is offering a free download of the first chapter of Ambient Findability, and the book is on the shelves now.


[1] Search Engine Visibility by Shari Thurow. New Riders (2002), p. 89.

[2] Marketing Management by Philip Kotler. Prentice Hall (2002), p. 204.

[3] Kotler, p. 205.

[4] Adapted from Christina Wodtke, who said, “Information architecture is just an elegant hack.”

About the Author

Peter Morville

Peter Morville is a writer, speaker, and consultant. His bestselling books include Information Architecture for the World Wide Web and Ambient Findability. He advises such clients as AT&T, Harvard, IBM, the Library of Congress, Microsoft, the National Cancer Institute, Vodafone, and the Weather Channel. His work on user experience design and the future of search has been covered by Business Week, The Economist, Fortune, NPR, and The Wall Street Journal. You can reach him by email or find him online at and Peter lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife, two daughters, and a dog named Knowsy.

11 Reader Comments

  1. _In the spirit of the hack, in the positive rather than pejorative sense, findability invites clever solutions to interesting problems. Hackers don’t worry so much about org charts. They just get the job done. In this sense, we need more findability hackers who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty._

    I’ve often found that the real battle is in getting past the people who *do* worry about the org chart. As designers and developers we all need to work on our skills of persuasion so we get a chance to use our technical and creative skills properly.

  2. I work for a fairly small design and hosting outfit. There are only six of us, a graphic designer, server-side programmer, network admin, manager, support specialist, and a client-side programmer (me). We already have the vertical separation discussed in this article, although to a much lesser degree. The small number of people involved make “findability” a feasible objective.

    I think you’ll see smaller organizations pick up on this faster and have more success initially than large corporations or governments. The methods discovered by the smaller groups could then be tweaked and applied to the larger groups.

  3. To a large extent, I’ve seen compromises in findability come from a poor understanding (or incorrect and often unvoiced assumptions) about site requirements.

    I’ve found that an emphasis on requirements gathering at the start of a project can motivate customers to understand the importance of findability. Requirements gathering should include descriptions of various user segments (“customer groups” in marketing-speak). Examples include: new visitors, existing customers, partners, staff, prospective employees, investors, etc. One way to set up this analysis is with a table: each row represents a user segment, and columns represent segment name, their goals in using the site, challenges to selecting the client, and the desired outcome of their visit from the customer’s perspective. The discussion of customer needs seems to make clients (and design team members) very sensitive to visibility of content and the ways that *customers* perceive the site.

  4. Interesting. I will be curious to see how or if the book deals with the real-world implications of the ideas proposed in this sample. In my experience, you can’t leave SEO solely up to the Marketing people, sure, but you can’t leave SEO solely up to the Web people either. After accepting findability as an important goal for both, my problems seem to have stemmed from finding ways to get departments with two entirely different mindsets about things to work together.

  5. The best website in terms of content, format and style. I have learnt a lot from your site and my best wishes for your sterling work. Thanks

  6. I find that SEO simply turns a lot of people off. It has a “busy work” quality to it that kills any appreciation for it or willingness to tackle it. I’ll certainly vouch that it’s important, but at the same time, it’s not as sexy as visual design is for a graphic artist or as pressing as fixing bugs is to a programmer or launching new campaigns is for marketers. That’s a big over generalization, but it seems to be my consistent observation.

  7. Ignored by many designers (and I think this is the designer’s job to tackle) is “findability”. It’s exactly what makes the subway maps in London work. It’s partially consistency and partially planned index, but if you plan for your users to have the minimum amount of clicks to content you’ve gone a long way to findability.

    I don’t think you need a separate position for this with the exception of very large corporations and/or sites.

  8. As touched on in the excerpt, findability extends into semantics on a website. Consistency is important and will ultimately have to cross barriers. The context of a given website will have to include the community/industry it finds itself in and we will find websites will no longer survive as a lone entity – rather collaborating websites will prosper. Users will find a natural progression between sites employing language that is truely consistent.

  9. There is an enormous benefit to organizing a site’s content according to, or in line with, the mental stages the site’s readers and/or customers find themselves in (similar to Figure 1 in Peter Morville’s article). To a degree you can then view the real purpose of internal links (rather in a navbar or inside the content) as not simply being to redirect viewers to different information but to _different information presented in a way that matches where they are in the learning or buying process_.

    A *learn more* link on a page providing general information for “just curious” readers shouldn’t point to the same page as a similar link on a page aimed at a customer who is evaluating the seller (having already been sold on the product). This is, or should be true even if the subject of the *learn more* link is identical in both cases.

    Done well, and done thoroughly, a site structured in this way is going to be far more successful. A site visitor will tend to gravitate towards the content that is written for where he or she is in the learning/buying process and that content can be written specifically for moving this visitor to the next stage. In some cases it’s even possible to bring someone from a search engine directly into the correct part of the site, or at least avoid bringing them into the wrong part(s).

    Consider, for example, the probable difference in knowledge between people who search for “laser eye surgery,” “LASIK” or “Laser In Situ Keratomileusis.” If you structure your content such that the third search phrase is never used in a “general information” page you will avoid bringing a knowledgeable person into a page they won’t find helpful and you won’t be showing a “just beginning to learn about it” person a term that is overly technical for them.

  10. Findability is of course very important. But onsite optimzation is at least for google not the important factor. The key to success is link building. Unless a web designer does not create a site only with flash, you can get a good ranking for your keywords without a problem. No question, it is easier with a good onsite optimization. But you should not restrict your desgner’s creativity.

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