Friday, November 12, 2010

Website Usability Testing - Figuring out the Black Box

Ever heard of the “black box”? It a scientific concept, used in research and development. The idea is based on pretty simple concepts:

  • Something goes into a system, like it's being plugged into a big black box.
  • Something happens to it in the system.
  • Then it comes out the other side, changed.

Then the scientists try and figure out, based on the way it changed, what happened inside the box.

There are lots of real-world examples of this. Driving a car is a good one. You sit in the seat, and you step on the gas. The car lunges forward. Most people do this several times a day, and don't even think about it. Most people have little or no clue what goes on under the hood and under the car that makes it go. They simply know that if they step on the gas (something going into the system), the car moves (something coming out of the system). In between those two things, it might as well be a dark black box.

But it would seem that knowing what goes on in the black box would be of real value. You would be able to tweak the box, or send in better stuff so that whatever comes out would be more like what you want. If you don't know what goes on in the box, it's all going to be a mystery.

Your website is very much the same way.

People come to your website. You spend a lot of time and effort bringing them there. Then, they leave your system in one of two outcomes. One, they simply leave and go somewhere else. Or, they buy something/sign up for something and then leave. In between is a mystery. Even the best tracking systems don't really give you a true, clear picture of what goes on, click-by-click, inside the black box that is your website.

To find that out, you'll need to do some face-to-face usability testing. Here are the steps:

  • Prepare the test

First of all, as with all tests, it's important to decide exactly what you want to know. How easy is it for my customers to find the products they want and buy them? Can they sign up for my newsletter? Can they find information they're looking for?

Come up with 3-4 specific tasks that you'd like your test subjects to complete. Vary them, but they should be important things your site contains. Put these in a list. Don't list the instructions on how to do the task, just the task itself. For example: “Find and purchase a blue Tiffany lamp.” or “sign up for the free information email”

  • Find the usability test subjects

The more people you have do the usability testing in your site, the more effective your information will be. 5-10 people will be a good range to start. If you have more time, you can do more. It's also good to get people with a variety of computer skills, from those that were born with a mouse in their hands, to people who barely know how to turn on a computer. Family and friends can be great usability testers.

  • Run the test

Sit down with your test subjects in front of a computer. You'll be watching over their shoulders, but you'll not be interacting with them. Load up your website, give them the list of tasks, and watch them do the tasks.

Here is the important part: To make your usability test true, DO NOT SPEAK TO THEM, or answer ANY questions. If they turn to you and ask, smile and shrug. If they make a comment, smile and write it down. DO NOT RESPOND. In the real world, people are visiting your site, and you can't talk them through it, either.

You'll pay attention to how long it takes them to complete the tasks, of course, but also watch the paths they take through your site as they do them. Do they struggle at any point? Is any part frustrating or confusing? Write all of these things down.

When they've either completed or given up on all of the tasks, then you can talk. Ask them about the experience overall, and for any additional comments.

Then, buy your test subject some soda and chips. They'll appreciate that!

  • Analyze

Once you've run these tests a few times, you'll see patterns. Some of them will be good ones, others will point out problems or bottlenecks in your navigation. The beauty of usability testing, if it's done right, is that it will provide you with stark reality. You'll see, first-hand, how your customers are interacting with your website. Powerful stuff.

Then you'll be in a position to make some real changes to your site to improve the user experience. And that will improve your bottom line.


Mark is currently in the curriculum Department of an internet and SEO training company.

Mark also has other sites and blogs, including Mark's Black Pot - Dutch Oven Recipes, and his MoBoy blog.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Writing a Blog Post

I’ve been blogging for about 8 years, now.  In the bloggosphere, that’s a long, long, long time.  Over the years, I’ve developed a pattern of steps that I follow when I make a blog post.  I don’t always follow it, and sometimes the lines between some of the steps get blurry.  But I always realize that the more closely I follow this pattern, the better my results.

  •  Idea

I have a google doc that I keep for my blog ideas.  When I’m out on the web, and I read something that hits me I add it to that list.  If someone tweets or blogs something cool, that merits more than just a comment or a retweet, I post that to my list.  The document is broken into three separate lists, one for each blog I write.  It’s set up with a shortcut on my desktop, and I also can access it from my smart phone.  No matter where I am or what I’m doing, if I think “I’m so blogging this...” I can preserve that thought for later.

Then, when the time comes for me to actually write the blog, I open up that document, and I’ve got a lot of things I can write about.  I just pick one and go.

Sometimes I’ll go out actively looking for ideas.  I’ll check Yahoo’s main page or Google Trends to see what search terms are hot, and see if any of them could be related to my topic.  I’ll go to or and search for a few of my go-to keywords to see if there are any current news stories I can resource.

  • Research

Sometimes getting an idea is its own research.  By that, I mean that while I’m out doing my normal “keeping-up-on-things” reading, I find a great topic that makes me want to write.  Other times, I get an idea from some other situation, and I’ll have to do a bit of research and reading to get some background.  Sometimes, I’ll just have to do a little fact-checking.  In any case, it’s good to base your writing on some facts.  Or opinions...

  • Thoughts

Often, my first bit of writing is just actually jotting down some notes.  When preparing this post, for example, I wrote out all of these bullet points.  I just get a few thoughts down, maybe in a sentence, or maybe in a list.  That’s enough to get me started.

  • First Draft

Now, I’m ready to write.  I’ll start filling in sentences and paragraphs around those ideas that I listed out in the previous step.  Or, I’ll flesh out those skeletal bits that I jotted down, either from my research or from my first thoughts.

It’s important to me, while I’m in this first draft, to not block myself.  So, I don’t usually pay too much attention to logic, sensibility, punctuation, rules.  I just write. 

Yes, my first drafts are a mess.  You got a problem with that?  I don’t.

  • First Edit: Flow & Logic

The reason I don’t have a problem with messy first drafts is that I know that I’m going to clean them up long before the public sees them.  My first edit is where I look the posting over and clean up the logic and the flow.  Top to bottom, does it make sense?  Some posts, I organize chronologically, like I often do when writing a recipe at Mark’s Black Pot.  Other posts may be organized in a more “inverted pyramid” format.  Sometimes, in a more personal blog post, it’s OK to ramble.

  • Second Edit: Proofread

Now, it’s starting to make sense.  It’s time to clean up by the rules.  Check for punctuation errors, spelling errors, clumsy sentences, redundancies...  There are a lot of grammar nazis out there, and I’d rather not give them the fodder.

  • Third Edit: Keywords & SEO

The next edit is possibly the most important.  I go through the article and tweak sentences to include more keywords.  More of my main keywords, more long-tail keywords, and more keywords to draw people to my affiliate links.  More, more, more!

Another thing to add at this stage is links.  Establishing internal links to other relevant topics that you’ve blogged about before will draw clicks to those entries, as well as boost search engine value as well.  Make sure that you’re including keywords in your link text, and not just saying “click here”.  Links to external websites will also help to establish you as a credible, connected source of information.  You can also contact the people you’ve linked to, and they’ll sometimes mention you as well, spreading the link love!

  • Rest, and Re-read

This is a strategy that I’ve just recently discovered, but I haven’t done as much as I need to.  Once a blog entry is written, it’s a good idea to let it rest before posting it.  This does a few good things for you.

First, you’ll re-read it a few hours later with fresh eyes, and possibly catch writing errors and problems that you missed before.  It might not be as clear as you’d originally thought, or there’s a spelling error you didn’t see.

Second, if it’s a very personal or emotional blog post, you can stop yourself from saying things that get too many people mad at you.  While courting controversy is sometimes one way to gain traffic and readers, it can also undermine your credibility if you handle it wrong.

  • Posting

Now it’s time to go public!  Copy and paste your article into your blog host and click the publish button, right?

Almost.  There are a few more things I do here.

The first is to find some pictures to include.  Even though I don’t always do this, especially in a conceptual blog like this one, it’s amazing how much a good graphic will dress up an article.

I’ll also, at the bottom, interlink it with my other blogs.  Yes, I do that, even though they’re not always (or even often) relevant.

Also, I’ll find some relevant affiliate products (usually books at and include those in my blog.  And don’t forget to tag the post.

  • Promoting

The final step is to go out and tell the world that it’s there.  I post a spot up on facebook and twitter, with a clever, leading and enticing phrase to draw people there.  I’ll also put it up on a pinging service, like, or, to notify blogging aggregating sites as well as search engines that I have new content.

This is a pretty exhaustive list of steps, and some even might consider it exhausting.  But to do them all each time will end with better written posts, that rank higher, are better connected, and eventually make you more money.


Mark is currently in the curriculum Department of an internet and SEO training company.

Mark also has other sites and blogs, including Mark's Black Pot - Dutch Oven Recipes, and his MoBoy blog.

Friday, January 08, 2010

How to Use Google Queries to Find Backlink-Friendly Sites

A while ago, I was out cruisin' the blogosphere's main drag, and found another helpful post. This one talked about how to establish quality backlinks.  Much of the posting talked about some pretty typical ideas, like writing and posting good articles, and posting blog comments, etc...  These strategies are pretty well-known.  However, one thing about this article that most other postings have ignored is just how to find the best sites to place your links. 

The genius of this article is in using very specific Google searches to find these sites.  Some of these search strategies kinda fall in the realm of "Power Searching" on Google because they involve more than just typing in words and hoping to get good hits.  We'll talk about these as we get through them.

Directories, Lists, and Vertical Portals

It's important to get your site listed in Directories, especially topic-specific ones (especially vertical portals).  But how do you find them?  Well, it turns out that there are some common factors that these pages all seem to have, and you can use that in your searches to get straight to them.

First pick one of your keyword phrases.  The first part of the search will be that phrase included in quotations (yes, you'll use the quotations in the Google search bar).  Like this:

"outdoor cooking"

This will tell google to search for sites that contain an exact match for the words "outdoor cooking".  If a site has the word "outdoor" and "cooking" but they're apart, in different sentences, for example, then the site won't come up in the results list.

Then, after a space, type a plus sign (+), like this:

“outdoor cooking” +

This tells Google that you want to include something else in the search criteria.

After another space, type: “add url” (and include the quotations), like this:

“outdoor cooking” + “add url”

Google will return only web pages that include both the exact phrase, "outdoor cooking" AND the exact phrase "add url", but they don't have to be right next to each other in the page.  See, most directories, lists, and vertical portals include the phrase, "add url".  But we don't want EVERY directory and portal, just the ones about outdoor cooking, so we include that, as well, in the search.

Here are some other searches that will bring up directories, lists, and portals (use your own keyword phrases in place of the words "Keyword phrase" and remember to include the quotation marks):

“Keyword phrase” + “add site”
“Keyword phrase” +  “add website”

Another trick involves and their system of establishing lists.  Go to Google and do this search:

“add+to+this+list”+”keyword phrase”

This search query will pull up a list of pages (many with good pageranks) that allow you to add your site to their list, and, in many cases, even choose your own link text.

Using these searches can save you a lot of time in the most labor intensive part of your linking campaigns, that is: finding the kinds of sites you want to use. 

Mark is currently in the curriculum Department of an internet and SEO training company. Mark also has other sites and blogs, including Mark's Black Pot - Dutch Oven Recipes, and his MoBoy blog.