A List Apart


Findability, Orphan of the Web Design Industry

Findability, Orphan of the Web Design Industry

Once upon a time in a web design agency, there lived a sad little boy named Findability. He was a very good boy with a big heart for helping people…

  • find the websites they seek,
  • find content within websites, and
  • rediscover valuable content they’d found.
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He used his arsenal of talent for planning, writing, coding, and analysis to create websites that could connect with a target audience.

Although Findability had a closely knit family, he felt like an orphan, because his siblings always seemed to get the lion’s share of time and attention from the folks in the web design agency. Everyone fawned over the curly-haired, rosy-cheeked twins Information Architecture and Usability who put everything in its place with a label that all would understand. Project Management garnered everyone’s respect for his deft communication, confident leadership, and his well-pressed, khaki trousers. Although Development was a little nerdy and shy, everyone admired his brilliance—from which he created an artificially intelligent search algorithm in just two lines of code. Super-hip Design was the cutest of them all. He seemed to win top accolades all by himself whether his siblings joined him on a project or not.

Everyone seemed to have their place in the project life-cycle at the web design agency; everyone but little Findability. Occasionally someone would notice his value to a project, but instead of giving him the care he deserved, they’d just fork over copious amounts of cash to ship him off to his sketchy uncle SEO, who tied him up and fed him keywords all day long. He spent so much time at uncle SEO’s that everyone started to think Findability was SEO, and subsequently became a little dubious of his importance.

Although Findability felt ignored or misunderstood, he knew that if he was given a chance, he could ensure that the brilliant work of his talented siblings reached their target audience. If only he were appreciated as much as the others, he could alleviate much of the everyday frustration that so many users experience when searching for information to solve their problems and satiate their curiosities.

But what could poor Findability do to be brought into the fold, to be loved and appreciated as much as his siblings? He just needed an advocate at the web design agency to promote his virtues.

That, dear reader, is where you come in. For the unfortunate moral to this sad little story is that we are the ones missing out by not making Findability a priority in what we do. There’s much to gain if only we recognize its value.

Why You Should Care About Little Findability

Despite its invaluable benefits to our work as web professionals, findability is tragically misunderstood, or worse—overlooked entirely. Perhaps we get so caught up in our respective disciplines that it’s simply lost in the shuffle. Maybe findability is on our radar but carries a negative stigma because it’s perceived as search engine duping SEO. Either way it seems that findability is left in the cold because we don’t understand it and don’t see where it fits into our process.

The fundamental goal of findability is to persistently connect your audience with the stuff you write, design, and build. When you create relevant and valuable content, present it in a machine readable format, and provide tools that facilitate content exchange and portability, you’ll help ensure that the folks you’re trying to reach get your message.

A website that ignores findability is whispering into the wind, hoping that someone passing by might catch a hint of its message. To further complicate the chances of reaching your target audience, a cacophony of other websites are vying for the same commodity—attention.

Findability is a multifaceted subject that touches every sub-discipline of our industry. Because each member of a web production team has a part to play in making a website more findable—including project managers, information architects, copywriters, designers, developers, and usability experts—it can’t be put off to the end of a project and it can’t be pawned off on uncle SEO, who will micro-focus on search. To do so is a waste of time and money. There’s more bang for your buck in educating everyone on your team about the boons of findability, and their role in achieving its goals.

Speaking of bucks, there’s money to be made by finding a place for findability in your project life-cycle. The more findable your content is, the more likely it will be the commercial success you’d hoped. Any client that has hired you or your agency to create a website that will connect them with their audience will appreciate the integration of findability strategies into your services. It could be what separates you from the other guys, and helps you win projects at higher bids because of the value it adds.

Bottom-line benefits make findability an easy sell to a production team and clients alike. They can be summed up with a simple equation:

findable c profits

What’s not to like about that? But in order for findability to be effective, it needs to be understood and embraced by all who plan, design, and build the web.

Rally the Troops

To become an advocate of findability in your organization you’ll need to have a sense of the role each team member plays in its support.

Project Managers

A project manager’s understanding of the project life-cycle, and talent for coordinating disparate members of the team, are key to getting findability the attention it deserves. If a project manager understands the value of findability to the business and communication objectives of a project, she’ll make sure everyone else understands, too. She can also educate the client on how the team will make the website successful by focusing on findability each step of the way. It’s an easy way to make it onto your client’s Christmas card list.

Information Architects

Much of what an information architect does already addresses the second goal of findability: to help people find the content they seek within a website. IAs do their darned best to understand the target audience’s behaviors so they can devise systems that will best facilitate content retrieval.

Why not go a step further and help users find the content they seek on the site before they arrive? Using tools like Google’s Adwords keyword research tool or WordTracker, IAs can discern which terms should be integrated into the site’s content to help users find the site through search.

Sites that use tagging systems like Magnolia, Flickr, and Digg also provide insight into search behaviors, as each user defined tag illuminates the way in which users label content for retrieval. Simply search for a term you think people might use to find your site, then check out the tags that are associated with the items returned. It’s like peering inside your users’ heads!

Because information architects have a more intimate knowledge of the content they’re organizing than a third-party SEO company, they can assemble a master list of keywords and phrases to help users find the site. The copywriter can then integrate the keywords and phrases into new or existing content. The keyword master list should also be shared with developers, so they can mark up the content with semantically meaningful tags, to communicate the importance of these terms to search engines.

Information architects can also plan to include tools to promote findability, such as site-wide search systems, tag clouds, “tell a friend” messaging systems, and links to share content on social networking sites.


A copywriter must carefully integrate keywords into the site’s content without stuffing the page. If a keyword appears too often or without articles, prepositions, and other words common to natural language, search engines might suspect that the content has been dishonestly loaded to attract search traffic. There’s no need to over-stack the deck; just incorporate the keywords where it seems natural to connect with your audience via search engines.

Of course, writing brilliant content is the biggest findability aphrodisiac. It promotes return visits to your site, and encourages your audience to tell others about it. That’s why a good copywriter is worth her weight in gold!


A good designer directs a user’s gaze like a Jedi performing mind tricks on unsuspecting storm troopers. Through the power of contrast a designer shows users where to look, and in doing so, can help them discover tools that will foster findability.

Elements such as the search box, RSS feeds, sitemap link, or mailing list subscription form are all key to helping users find what they seek, and rediscover the site later. Mailing list and feed subscribers are likely to return often to revisit content they found valuable or discover new content. The more frequently a user returns, the more likely they are to complete one of your business goals such as buy a product, make a donation, or get involved with your cause.


Developers—or more generically anyone who builds web pages—are central to findability, as they construct the conduit for our online messages. The way content is delivered can make the difference between findability bliss and the misery of obscurity.

Web standards and findability have a closely intertwined, symbiotic relationship. Semantic markup helps define the information hierarchy of your content so search engines can more accurately understand your message and direct users your way. The mass of redundant formatting code that web standards eliminates from pages improves the ratio of content to code, which can provide a modest search engine ranking boost to your site and expedite indexing.

Building content to be accessible to disabled users and those on alternative platforms helps ensure that roadblocks do not impede search engine indexing. A progressive enhancement approach to building interfaces that use JavaScript or Flash is an important part of clearing these roadblocks. Search engines won’t be able to see content loaded or hidden by JavaScript, and won’t as accurately understand the information hierarchy of content trapped in Flash movies.

Microformats are a powerful tool developers can use to make content portable to other platforms and devices. For example, event and contact information marked up with hCalendar and hCard respectively can be migrated to applications such as Google Calendar or downloaded to desktop software using the Operator toolbar. Portable content can be kept at your audience’s fingertips to be found when it’s needed most.

Tim Berners-Lee’s grand vision for the web was to keep it open to all users and accessible to the scripts and machines that serve us. That’s the path on which we’ve placed ourselves as advocates of web standards, and it’s one that will also move us towards a more findable Web.

Usability Experts

Usability experts inherently pursue findability by evaluating the degree to which a site is navigable. They can also evaluate how easy it is to find the site via search engines and check page rankings on target keywords that were defined by the information architect.

Traffic analysis tools like Google Analytics, Mint, and CrazyEgg provide detailed information about user behavior on a website. Usability experts can use these tools to identify findability pitfalls, learn where users are or aren’t clicking and what content is most relevant, and even watch videos of remote user sessions using ClickTale. Traffic analysis tools provide valuable information that helps improve findability long after the launch of a site.

The Orphan Finds His Place

Regardless of your discipline, there’s a place for findability in your work. By giving it proper consideration in each step of your project life-cycle, you can create more successful websites that will better serve your clients’ (and their users’) needs. Although the unfortunate story of the sad orphan named Findability had a gloomy start, it needn’t end the same way.

One day a smartly dressed employee of the web design agency discovered little Findability sulking in his cubicle.

“Hey, little fella. Why so glum?”

“No one really gets me. Heck, people don’t even seem to know I exist!”

“Well, I know who you are. You’re Findability! Don’t you help connect people with the information they seek?”

Immediately Findability perked up, surprised that a friendly stranger had recognized him.

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I do!”

With a warm smile, the agency employee said, “Come with me young man. I’d like to introduce you to my team.”

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