Your Customer = Ruthless From Brighton

My brother said “I love the internet” to me at the weekend. He’s a civil servant, married with three kids, house by the sea and no business experience or interest in marketing whatsoever….

“I love surfing the internet. I love looking around, reading the news, checking up on things. I like getting bargains too. Searching for stuff, reading reviews and finding the best price. With three kids and a mortgage I have to go for the cheapest.”

A pretty normal guy with an average attention span, he just needs to find whatever he’s looking for, and this means getting in and out as quickly as possible. He doesn’t care about advertising, cares little for privacy or how computers or the internet works. For him it’s a wormhole, a window through which he can get Portsmouth football results, research campsites in the South of France and save money on tat so he can buy even more tat!

Jakob Nielsen, the usability expert, has been talking about his annual report showing we’re getting better at closing the gap between what internet users are trying to do, and what they actually succeed in doing on the web.

A report by the BBC on the research, cites users are getting more “ruthless and selfish” when they go online. 75% of tasks are successfully executed these days, compared with just 60% way back in 1999.

Because the internet’s been around for a while, users are more savvy, they know what they want or where they want to go. That’s why we all agree that search is becoming so navigational. We all have our favourite sites, but according to Nielsen, we want them to get straight to the point. Apparently we have little patience for widgets and engagement exercises.

This goes against the grain of the last couple of years, where site owners and marketers have been told it’s all about time on page, getting social and trying to impart messages whilst holding attention for the maximum amount of time.

When he says that businesses “still feel that their site is interesting and special and people will be happy about what they are throwing at them," I guess that’s because so many online marketers are still measuring success in terms of “hits” and “uniques”?

You can have a thousand visitors a day, but if all they do is bounce off your home page it doesn’t matter how many page views you’re reporting, you’re not engaging them properly for what they’re trying to do.

I remember when I was at 24/7 Search some years ago. A colleague sat opposite me couldn’t understand why my client had sold three times the amount of flowers, running up to Mother’s Day, as his. They were both blue-chip, household, high-street names, yet the advertiser whose search campaigns I was managing had by far the higher conversion rate. On analysis, his client sent customers through 3 more pages/steps in the purchase process and would recommend all sorts of weird and random products along the way. This simply served to annoy and alienate their customers, who just wanted to buy some flowers quickly for their mums, and get on with their work.

The fact that search fails a lot of users is nothing new, “when you watch people search we often find that people fail and do not get the results they were looking for.” Search engines know they provide links and not necessarily answers to queries, which are essentially the user asking a question. Technology is getting better at assessing user intent, but we’re some way off.

The report goes a long way to prove that we’ve got better at addressing users needs, but that it depends on what they’re trying to do. Engagement is still a good measure to assess effectiveness, as many sites have “push” or “read me” content which needs to be optimised.

But if my brother wants to buy something like a bathroom tap or a chopping board, there’s a balance to be struck between providing him with all he needs to make an informed decision, and making him sit through a video or suggesting he play some crazy game.

The web has had a huge effect on how we market products and services to the masses. If we put one foot wrong, users will vote with theirs and walk the other way. At least now we have the power to measure where they came from, what they did and where they went, so we can make better decisions about how we tackle them next time.

Hopefully then, they’ll be a little less ruthless!