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Jakob Nielsen has been making some noise this week, ostensibly to promote his new book, about the benefits of speaking in the language that can be easily understood by users.

In the Age of Google this 20-year old ‘speak the user’s the language’ usability maxim has a fresh impetus, since many users begin a web journey on a search engine, by typing in a search query.

So it follows, rather obviously, that you should replicate search queries on the page. This is something we have – rather obviously – advised you to do in our wonderful Search Engine Marketing Best Practice Guide.

Jakob says “old words are best”, quoting none other than Churchill to make his point. Readers are more likely to use old, familiar words in their average three-word search query, according to the celeberrimous usability guru. 

His other nuggets of wisdom are as follows:

  • Supplement made up words with known words
  • Play down marketese
  • Supplement brand names with generic terms
  • Avoid politically correct terminology

All good, though as far as usability and search guidelines go, you have probably heard all this all before. But getting it right isn’t always as straightforward as you may think.

For example, common words differ by geography / demographic. We advise UK-based retailers to use the words ‘add to basket’, because that’s what UK customers look for. However in the US, it tends to be ‘add to cart’. So you need to know where your audience lives. There may even be a case to adjust content on the fly, where possible / worth it. If it potentially adds 0.1% to your conversion rate, it is worth looking at, right?

Also, although Jakob’s number one SEO guideline is “speak the user’s language”, we think that it is just as important to position that language in the most appropriate places for Googlelove, such as in headlines, and in on-page and off-page links. Otherwise a phrase in the body copy may be usurped by a competitor that uses it in a headline.

I have two other suggestions for you to consider.

The first is what I frequently use as a key example of the differences between online and offline, when talking to offline journalists: do not use puns in headlines! There’s a trade-off between a catchy headline (to attract clicks) and SEO (which needs keywords / search phrases in headlines). Google doesn’t understand irony or sarcasm. So avoid puns. Label content in an appropriate way.

The second tip will provide you with a gold star for your Web 2.0 wallchart. It relates to tags / tagging.

User-generated tags allow people to tag your content any way they see fit. Note that user-defined tagging is different to the way we currently tag content, which is managed by the editorial team.

Tags are essentially user-defined metadata, and offer SEO benefits, while providing numerous labels for your content to help searchers uncover it, using their language. Users may well be a lot better at figuring out metadata for pages than your own employees.

Again, geographic / demographic differences may come into play with tags, as people spell words differently (eg optimise / optimize), and as such they display differences in search behaviour. Accordingly, users will tag content using both S and Z, depending on how they spell words, which will help both kinds of people (the Sers and the Zers) to find it.

Tags should be displayed on the page, labelled ‘popular tags’ or ‘recent tags’. They will help content relevant to the user to be discovered via Google or your own onsite search tool.

Chris Lake

Published 30 August, 2006 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

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