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User research: the ultimate guide

When you want to make some considerable improvements to your website, what’s the best place to start? At Yoast, we feel that research is always one of the most important things to do. It’ll help you find out what needs work, why it needs work, and of course, what you have to do to make things better.

Looking at our website data in Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and other SEO tools, is already part of our weekly activities. But, in order to dive deeper than just having a look at the plain data, we love to do user research. This is the part where you truly get to know your customers and where you’ll discover your blind spots when it comes to your own website. Within this ultimate guide, we’ll show you what types of user research could be valuable for your own website or company.

Table of contents

The top task survey

What kind of user research fits and complements the existing data always depends on the type of project you run. However, we believe that running a so-called ‘top task survey’ should always be the first step when you start doing user research. As you’ll able to use the outcomes of a top task survey within all future projects.

So, what is a top task survey exactly? To get to know why your customers visit your website, you’ll need to talk to your customers. And, how do you get to talk to your customers without actually having conversations with lots of customers? You could set up an online top task survey, which pops up on your visitor’s screen as soon as you like, either immediately after entering the website or after a couple of minutes. 

Questions in a top task survey

The popup is set up for one simple reason: to find out the purpose of their visit to your website. 

To make sure you’ll get valuable data out of your top task survey, it’s important to ask the right question. We recommend asking one open question: ‘What is the purpose of your visit to this website? Please be as specific as possible.’

With this open question, you give your customers the chance to truly say what they think. Closed questions make this harder, as you’ve already drawn up certain answers and then you risk missing other important thoughts or opinions your may customers have. And we know, analyzing the answers will take a lot more time, but when you do this right you’ll get the most valuable results.

Next to this one open question, it is possible to add one or two closed questions to take a closer look at your respondents. You might want to know the age or you want to know the type of customer it is. This data can be valuable to combine with the outcomes of the open question answers. In the top task surveys of Yoast, the second question is: ‘Do you have the Yoast SEO plugin?’. This is valuable information for us because we can see the difference between what free users are looking for on our website and what Premium users are looking for on our website. 

How often should you do a top task survey?

We recommend running your top task survey once a year. If you have a small website, you can choose to run the survey once every two years. The market you work in is always changing and customers always change, so every time you’ll run the survey, you’ll receive new, valuable information to work with and to improve on. 

The exit survey

The following two types of research we’ll discuss are more specific. And, which one you should perform at what time depends on the type of project you’re about to run. 

For example, you’ve noticed in your Google Analytics data that your most visited page has a very high bounce rate. This means that you need to know why visitors are leaving this fast. Couldn’t they find what they were looking for? Or did they find what they were looking for and are they already satisfied? You can get answers to these questions by running an exit survey on a specific page.

What is an exit survey?

An exit survey pops up when a visitor is about to leave the page. When a visitor moves their mouse cursor towards their browser bar, they are usually about to leave your website. So, this is the right moment to ask your visitor one or more questions. 

Questions in an exit survey

So, your visitor is about to leave, what do you want to know before they’re gone? We recommend keeping the survey short and simple: people are already leaving, so if you want them to fill out your survey, it needs to be short.

The question you ask depends on the page and the problem you want to solve. When you have a specific blog post with a high bounce rate, you might want to know if visitors have found the information they were looking for. The simple open question you could ask: ‘What information were you looking for today on our website?’. You could add a second closed question to see if the page fulfills your visitor’s needs: ‘Have you found what you’ve been looking for?’. A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is enough to get this overview. 

Within our post ‘What is an exit survey and why should you use it?’ we’ve added some more examples of questions you could ask depending on the page that needs attention.

User testing

The third type of research is ‘user testing’. User testing is the type of research in which you get ‘live’ feedback from your clients because you actually see people using your website or product. At the beginning of this guide, we already mentioned ‘blind spots’ and user testing is the best way to find these blind spots. For example, you know exactly where to find what information or what product on your website, but visitors might not. Seeing testers struggle with finding the right page on your website can be embarrassing, but the good news is, when you know, you can improve!

Why should you do user testing?

User testing can give you very valuable insights during every stage of your process. When you’re creating a new product, it’s valuable to see what potential customers think of it, but it’s just as valuable to see what your customers think of your product that has already existed for over three years. Every test will give you new insights to work with!

User testing also guarantees that the test results are ‘real’. You can see for yourself how your customers use your website or product. The customer can’t ‘lie’ about things. And, that’s a big difference with survey respondents: they can say different things compared to what they really experience.

How to get started

There are three main types of user testing which you could use for your own website or product:

  • Live, moderated user testing: your testers will test with a moderator in the same room.
  • Remote, moderated user testing: your testers will test with a moderator while they’re in contact through a video call.
  • Remote user testing without a moderator: your testers will test without a moderator in their own time and space. They will record the test so you can watch it later.

Within our specific post ‘What is user testing and why should you do it?’, we explain more thoroughly what type should be used in what situation. 

After picking the method you want to use, it’s important to set up a clear plan with goals and a test scenario. Hereby you make sure the testers will follow the right path and will give you the insights you need. After that, it’s time to recruit your testers. Decide on what types of testers you’ll need to get the best test results. We recommend recruiting different types: young people, older people, experienced people, inexperienced people, etc. Think of all the types of people that might use your website or product now and in the future. 

Then it’s time to get started! Create a plan and start testing with your recruited people. Make sure you record all tests, making it easier to analyze the results. As it’s nearly impossible to remember everything that happened during the tests. 

Analyzing user research results

There is some difference in analyzing the results of surveys, such as the top task survey and the exit survey compared to the user testing results. 

When analyzing an online survey, we recommend to export all data to a sheet and to create categories for all answers. Place every answer into a specific category to get a clear overview of what the biggest problems are. After that, you can easily see what problems need to be prioritized and you can start thinking of improvements. Set up an action plan and start improving!

For the user tests, it can more difficult to create a couple of categories that fit the test results. Here, it’s easier to write a summary for every user test and to combine those at the end. Can you discover similarities? Can you combine some issues to improve more at once? It’s important to look at the bigger picture so you can make improvements that will have a big impact on the future user experience of your website or product!

User research tools

There are several tools in which you can create a top task survey or an exit survey (or other surveys!). We’re currently using Hotjar, but we’re planning to create our own design and implementing it with Google Tag Manager. Tools we know for setting up online surveys are:

  • Hotjar
  • SurveyMonkey
  • Mopinion

On their sites, they have a clear explanation of how to use these tools to perform an exit survey.

For user testing, your needs are different. Testing a website or a product, you’ll need a testing environment for your testers or a test product they are allowed to use. Besides, you’ll need recording material: for testing a website, you can easily record a screen session, but for testing a product, you’ll need to think of a recording set up. Do you have a good camera and a tripod, for example? Then you can get started! When you’re doing user tests more often, you can use an eye tracker as well to get more insights on how people are looking at your website or product, but it’s not necessary!

Are you already doing user research as well? Or have we convinced you to start doing user research? Let us know in the comments below!

Read more: Panel research for your business: Benefits and tips »

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4 Steps to Create a Facebook Marketing Campaign [Infographic]

How do you go about making Facebook posts that will lead to conversions?

Here are some tips to help you jump start your business’s Facebook marketing campaign:

infographic

Step 1: Create a Business Facebook Page

Always post on behalf of your company as the page, not the personal profile and include an easily recognizable profile picture and page cover photo. Fill your business page with as much useful information as possible, utilizing targeted keywords in the “About” section.

Step 2: Write the Perfect Post

Aim at posting three times a week to start. Ideally, it is good to post something once a day, every day. However, you can’t just post anything on your business’s Facebook page. The ultimate goal of every business Facebook post is to get engagement, whether it be asking people to “like” your company’s Facebook page or to visit your company’s website to make a purchase.

A posting schedule will also help you get prepared to write quality content and avoid haphazardly posting simply for the sake of posting.

Step 3: Use Facebook Marketing Tools

You can increase the success of your business’s Facebook posts or ads by taking a couple additional (optional) steps. There are several tools that can help increase engagement. This includes pinning important posts, auto-scheduling posts, CTA buttons, using Facebook ads, analytics, and more.

Step 4: Monitor and Make Adjustments

Consistently use Facebook Insights to monitor the highs and lows of a campaign. Not everything goes exactly as planned in social media, and so you have to know what needs to be changed, and when you should change it. Even small adjustments could have a large impact on your results.

 

How is your social media campaign performing? Download this free checklist and make sure you’ve got everything covered.

Download your free social media checklist hbspt.cta.load(1849295, ‘1852150b-d3aa-48c6-94ee-e4f0b01e06b6’, {});

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Can a Google Partner Help With SEO?

LEGO stormtrooper an a black background. He looks quite shady as he is half hidden in the shade.

In recent years most former SEO agencies have become Google Partners that is they buy enough Google Ads to be eligible for that badge in the first place.

Can they actually help you with your organic search reach aka SEO though? Aren’t they just “alleging a special relationship with Google”? Let’s find out!

For more than a decade Google has a helpful page for starters called “Do you need an SEO?“. One of the crucial parts of it has been the “No one can guarantee a #1 ranking on Google.” warning:

The “guaranteed rankings” and the “priority submit” expressions are pretty dated SEO lingo by now. They stem from the ancient past. You can ignore those.

Nobody is stupid enough to use such phrases anymore to lure Internet newbies. The “special relationship” – an expression introduced by Google – is more than relevant today though.

In a bizarre twist of events now Google itself offers special relationships to Internet marketing agencies when they buy lots of Google Ads.

How to become a Google Partner? Pay Google!

Google Partner requitements screen shot. Most importantly you need to buy at least 10.000$ worth of Google Ads each quarter.

For many years we were told not to claim to be buddies with Google as that would be misleading potential clients. Sounds like common sense. Yet Google changed that credo.

In recent years this is what exactly happened on a large scale. You can now easily align yourself with the ever growing Google empire.

A few years ago it was still a badge that would say “Google Adwords certified” or something similar. That distinction has gone lost after Google introduced the Google Partners program.

Most business people who visit agency sites might not be aware of the fact that Google Partners are in no way supported by Google when it comes to organic search aka SEO (search engine optimization).

Yet on most agency sites that’s exactly what is alleged. I have found a good example of this wide spread practice on SEO.com (full disclosure: I have been an affiliate of SEO.com in the past):

SEO.com advertises themselves on their homepage as a Google Partner with access to "specialized" Google tools and to a Google employee.

It’s a win win situation for both Google and Internet marketing agencies. Google gets a steady stream of money and agencies can brag about their special connection to the Internet giant.

The only ones who don’t really benefit are the clients who want to have their website optimized for search engines – which nowadays means mostly Google.

The partial screen shot I have posted above is taken from SEO.com as you can see. It’s the highest ranking search engine optimization company on Google (currently #5 from here).

It’s right there on the SEO.com homepage and the wording they use is strikingly similar to what the Google article asking “Do you need an SEO?” says. I highlighted it in red.

They are in no way an exception though. You see those badges all over the place. Even agencies I considered very trustworthy sport them in a misleading way by now.

You can’t solely blame agencies of course. It’s very hard to place a Google Partner badge on your site without making the impression this partnership also applies to your SEO services.

For Google it’s simply a good way to keep Google ads budgets high and make sure agencies are dependent on them for their reputation.

What are Google Partners experts on? Google Ads.

Screen shot from Google's Partner page. Partners specialize in several kinds of ads. No SEO mentioned.

Aren’t Google Partners more knowledgeable and able to connect with Google employees to fast track their clients to the top of search results? Not really. They can and do buy ads though.

The Google Partners clearly explains the currently five options Google Partners specialize in (see also screen shot above):

  1. Search Advertising
  2. Mobile Advertising
  3. Video Advertising
  4. Display Advertising
  5. Shopping Advertising

What the screen shot does not state is also self-evident. We only talk about buying ads on Google services not with other vendors.

What those agencies mostly do is setting up a largely automated system of taking your money and using it to buy Google Ads on a regular basis. The more it remains intact the better for them.

Star Wars robot R2D" is moving alone on a sandy path which looks like part of a desert planet, maybe Tatooine.

Effectively you just pay the agency for a bot that spends your money on autopilot most of the time. Yet the agency gets a significant amount of the budget itself. On the other hand

It’s about making your website visible and findable on the actual search results themselves. They are called organic because you don’t have to pay Google for such reach.

Also the wide spread click fraud does not apply to organic results. Studies show that more than half of ads are never even viewed by a human being.

No matter whether the click has been done by a human or a bot you have to pay for it. Google claims to ignore fake clicks but it does often not work.

Join the rebel alliance!

In a way traditional search engine optimizers like myself are the rebels who bug the seemingly omnipotent Google empire. We don’t let us dominate by the search engine and its business model.

In the beginning we weren’t meant to just convince people to buy ads from Google. We were striving to allow website owners to exist without the need to pay for traffic.

Personally I consider buying ads and optimizing for organic search reach a conflict of interest – like being your taxi driver and driving instructor at the same.

Why would I shoot myself in the foot and teach you how to drive when you can pay me instead for driving you around on a regular basis? That would be idiotic.

There is no incentive to optimize a website for organic reach when you can get easy money by solely being the middleman between business owners and Google Ads.

I also do not use Google Analytics anymore because I do not want to support Google data collecting and sharing policies. They track you all over the Web using multiple means.

I use the self-hosted open source solution Matomo instead. It’s focused on privacy and you don’t send the data to the actual company at all.

4 LEGO Star Wars rebels are standing there ready for anything, Chewbacca on the right among them.

I am a bit of a radical even among the rebels though. In the early days we didn’t have Google Ads yet and SEO was about helping people to optimize their actual website.

Even later on when Google started pushing Ads it was just a temporary means of getting traffic until the actual optimization worked.

Many search engine optimizers also used Google’s then called Adwords for keyword research to find out whether Google’s keyword tools actually disclosed useful numbers. They often did not.

Long story short SEO has never been is still is not about buying traffic from Google. Pay Per Click ads are just a means to make Google rich and to remain dependent on the gatekeeper.

When you decide to buy traffic from Google you actually waste funds you could have used on search engine optimization. Like a drug user you will always have to pay to stay high on Google.

You can optimize your website to make it rank instead. When investing in SEO you could actually improve your

or create content in the first place. Your product descriptions are not content. Something that has value by itself is actual content not simply packaging. Think bottle vs liquid inside.

Live by the Google, die by the Google!

LEGO Darth Vader kills a storm trooper by applying the force.

Search engine optimization the way I practice it not only helps you with search but also with social media and direct traffic.

It’s also important to make sure that the people who arrive on your site actually find what they seek and do what they should do like

  • subscribe
  • sign up
  • buy

When you solely rely on Google Ads you may end up broke sooner or later. That’s one of the main reasons startups fail. They mainly buy traffic from the gatekeepers Google and Facebook.

They fail to establish their brand, build an actual audience of regular users because they trick themselves into believing that they can ask Google and Facebook to deliver fresh traffic forever.

Your “target audience” is finite though in many cases, especially when you offer a highly specialized SaaS (Software as a Service) product.

When you push your ads to the same people over and over you’ll get ignored after a while. You need to establish

  • authority
  • credibility
  • trust

by sharing, engaging and outreach or in short SEO. Yes, that’s the explanation of the modern SEO acronym to me. I’ll elaborate on that in another post.

The same thing applies to small businesses that have only a local reach. After a while everybody knows you in one way or another.

Who are you in the eyes of search users? Are you that company that has to use ads to get people to visit them or are you a company you already like and others recommend as well?

When I use search I tend to click familiar sounding names in the results. The same applies to ads on a side note. I’m not alone, even Neil Patel relies on brand building.

Reliance on fresh traffic from Google is a recipe for disaster in the long term. You live by the Google and you die by the Google.

For many small business the “1000 true fans” business model is perfectly sufficient. You don’t always need a steady stream of new people.

Of course I refer to faithful customers. For example I am with the same barber for more than a decade. I don’t need to look up Google every time I want a new haircut.

Are you a friend of the Google empire?

Search results for [google partner seo] showing many companies claming they are Google Partners when it comes to SEO.

In general it’s not a good sign when someone’s main selling point is being a friend of the Google empire. In the middle ages it was called nepotism.

Nowadays it’s a bit like being a doctor who is partnering with the pharma industry. Who is s/he really working for? What’s her or his goal?

I’d rather look for someone who is truly independent and does not have to resort to such alleged relationships. It’s self-evident really isn’t it?

Of course there are still some knowledgeable SEO experts working for agencies that are Google Partners but you can never know as on outsider.

Also the incentive to keep a client paying for ads for years might be more tempting than ensuring the long term success of organic SEO efforts. Thus

some ethical agencies have stopped offering both Google ads and organic reach optimization at the same time.

They have either split and run two separate agencies now depending on the business model – just like you would split up a company offering taxi fares and driver’s licenses.

Some agencies simply offer only Google ads by now. This way the wrong impression of being buddies with Google does not mislead potential SEO clients.

Others simply focus on organic reach via search engine optimization and alternative ways of improving your organic reach. Think social media and direct traffic.

You might want to consider such a step when you won an agency or work at one before your online reputation might suffer.

Do you depend on Google Ads?

Ideally one day you can run your website yourself without continuous ad spend and only occasional or low level SEO activity unless you pay for

Those tasks can be performed by your team though without an external agency once you have taught them social media and content best practices or they’ve read the above linked guides.

Your website is well optimized and the evergreen content is good enough to earn links when the SEO is done holistically and with due diligence.

I had clients a decade ago who still benefit from my link magnets to this day. What did I do? I just created evergreen content and well optimized pages that still rank high.

Of course you still depend on Google when solely relying on organic traffic from the search giant but you can embrace other means of gaining traction as well.

Optimization for search, social media and direct audiences is not mutually exclusive. Often it’s the same people using different tools.

Buying ads sadly often means not optimizing your site at all. At best dedicated landing pages will be created that are just trying to convert one time visitors.

Visitors who return and thus so called retention are the ones to look for and after. Forcing new people down the sales funnel can ostracize them for good.

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Low-budget branding for small businesses

Over the years, we’ve written quite a few articles about branding. Branding is about getting people to relate to your company and products. It’s also about trying to make your brand synonymous with a certain product or service. This can be a lengthy and hard project. It can potentially cost you all of your revenue. It’s no wonder that branding is often associated with investing lots of money in marketing and promotion. However, for a lot of small business owners, the investment in branding will have to be made with a relatively small budget. 

You might be a local bakery with 10 employees, or a local industrial company employing up to 500 people. These all can be qualified as ‘small business’. All have the same main goal when they start: the need to establish a name in their field of expertise. There are multiple ways to do this, without a huge budget. In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on how to go about your own low-budget branding.

Define and communicate brand values

Branding with a limited budget starts with defining your company’s and your brand’s values. You need to think about what you, as a brand, want to communicate to the world. Doing this yourself won’t cost you, provided you are capable of doing this yourself. In fact, it’s a pretty hard task, when you think of it. It’s about your mission, the things that make your brand into your brand. Brand values relate to Cialdini’s seventh principle, Unity.

My favorite example illustrating unity: outdoor brands like Patagonia and The North Face, which make you feel included in their business ‘family’. “We are all alike, share the same values.” By being able to relate to these brands and their values, we are more enticed to buy their products. It’s a brand for us, outdoor people.

Take some time to define your brand values. That way, you’re able to communicate your main message in a clear and consistent way. It makes your marketing all the easier. You’ll be able to create brand ambassadors, even on a budget.

Come up with a proper tagline

Once you have defined your brand values, it’s time to summarize them all into one single tagline. For example, WordPress’ mission is to “democratize publishing“. In your tagline, you formulate your values and make sure your added value for the customer, user or visitor is also reflected. Again, be consistent. If you set a tagline, your actions and products should relate to that tagline, actually, even be based upon it. It summarizes your business.

Rethink your logo

Having a great logo is essential. When designing that logo, you’ll have to keep in mind that it’s probably something you’ll have for years. It’s the main thing – besides yourself – that will trigger (brand) recognition. It’s not that you can never change your logo, but don’t ‘just’ add a logo. Think about how it stands out from other logos, for instance on a local sponsor board.

Design that logo, print it, stick it on your fridge for a week or so, and see if there’s anything about it that starts to annoy you. If so, it’s back to the drawing board. Feel like you don’t relate to it in terms of business values or even personality? Back to the drawing board. When talking about low-budget branding, designing a great logo is probably your most expensive task.

Online low-budget branding

The online world is a great place to work on your low-budget branding. You need to establish a name in your field of expertise, and the surplus of social media can facilitate that by giving you a free platform.

Social media

I do a lot of local networking, because I really like the city we live in, and the huge variety of entrepreneurs that work in our hometown Wijchen. During network meetings, one of the phrases I often hear is: “Social media just takes me too much time”. To be honest, it might be wise to change your mindset about the costs and start seeing the revenue social media can bring you. It really is the easiest and probably one of the cheapest ways to promote your brand. Basically, the only cost is time investment (depending on how aggressively you want to use the medium). It may take a while before you find a strategy and/or platform that works, so give it some time and don’t just throw in the towel!

Read more: Social media for small business owners »

Share your expertise

You can use Twitter to stay in touch with like-minded business owners. Discover the huge number of Facebook groups in your area, and/or in your field of expertise. Bond with people that share the same values. Feel free to answer questions in your field of business and do this with confidence. Position yourself as the go-to company for these questions. Help people that way and create brand ambassadors. You really have to put some effort into establishing your position. It won’t happen overnight.

A bit of an extreme example: before Yoast became a business, Joost was already sharing content/expertise and our open source software. He engaged actively in forum and social media discussions about WordPress and SEO. Commenting on other people’s blogs. Time before revenue: 8 years. I’m not saying you need to wait eight years before making money with your passion. But I do think that you should be able to write, comment and take a stand in topics that matter to you from the start.

Make yourself visible

Eventually, it all comes back to business values. Everything you communicate should reflect these values. It’ll give you guidelines and will make sure your message is delivered in the same way, always. Low-budget branding is about just that: making yourself visible, in a consistent way.

Keep reading: The ultimate guide to small business SEO »

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