Website usability lessons still to learn

Via Boing Boing, I came across an interesting report on how people react to advertising when visiting websites. No prizes for guessing the most hated advertising technique – pop-up ads.

The report by Jakob Neilsen shows the 11 most hated advertising techniques.

My current ‘favourite’ is in there – sites that automatically start playing voice commentary or music, or both, as soon as you land on the website. Boy, is that irritating!

I don’t find pop-ups so bad these days simply because my browser of choice (Firefox) does an excellent job at blocking them. Internet Explorer does now have improvements in this area, yet whenever I use IE, invariably there will be pop-ups (or worse, pop-unders).

In his report, Neilsen says:

Advertising is an integral part of the Web user experience: people repeatedly encounter ads as they surf the Web, whether they’re visiting the biggest portals, established newspapers, or tiny personal sites. Most online advertising studies have focused on how successful ads are at driving traffic to the advertiser, using simple metrics such as clickthrough rates.

Unfortunately, most studies sorely neglect the user experience of online ads. As a result, sites that accept ads know little about how the ads affect their users and the degree to which problematic advertising tricks can undermine a site’s credibility. Likewise, advertisers don’t know if their reputations are degraded among the vast majority of users who don’t click their ads, but might well be annoyed by them.

Looking a little more into Neilsen’s research, I discovered a report by his company, Neilsen Norman Group, on Designing Websites to Maximize Press Relations: Guidelines from Usability Studies with Journalists.

You have to buy the report (from $248) for the detail, but the executive summary on the website does have some very useful info on areas of web design and usability that is most helpful from a PR point of view.

It’s what journalists need that’s the interesting thing, as the research points out:

The Web is one of the most important research tools for journalists. When asked how they would get basic information about a company, all the journalists in our study said that they would begin by doing some Web research. About half the journalists started by visiting the target company’s website; the other half started by searching an outside service (mainly Google, but also traditional services like Dow Jones Interactive and Lexis-Nexis). This finding emphasizes the necessity for having a clean corporate website with a clearly labeled Press or PR section that can quickly provide answers for journalists. It also emphasizes the need to be well represented in external search services and databases, especially since the trend over time is that more journalists are relying on search engines (mainly Google at the time of this writing).

Journalists are not gullible, and they do not take a company’s own word as truth. On the contrary, they almost all stressed that press releases are useful only to find out how a company is trying to position itself. We strongly recommend that a company’s PR area have links to external sources, including press coverage, since articles from independent newspapers and magazines are often considered to be much more credible than the company’s own press releases. We have seen similar findings in studies of prospective customers evaluating products on consumer- and business-oriented sites, so links to external press coverage will also help promote sales.

So many corporate websites just don’t take into account anyone’s – let alone journalists’ – needs for finding credible information about the organization. Links to external information? Don’t see much of that on far too many corporate sites. Another one – not easily finding a simple link to contact someone.

The research also includes the top-five reasons journalists gave for visiting a company’s website:

  1. Find a PR contact (name and telephone number)
  2. Check basic facts about the company (spelling of an executive’s name, his/her age, headquarters location, etc.)
  3. Discover the company’s own spin on events
  4. Check financial information
  5. Download images to use as illustrations in stories

Very useful information. This report is worth reading by PR practitioners and anyone who’s responsible for producing and developing a website.

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