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What can Google teach us about effective homepage design? 09/23/2009

Posted by Paul Daigle in Uncategorized.
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Go!Last week, when I came across news of Google’s new patent award for the company’s ultra-slim, famously utilitarian homepage interface, I must admit, I chuckled a bit. It’s hard to imagine a more superfluous use of our patent laws. Even Amazon’s much mocked one-click shopping award from 2000 had more meat on the bone. Trying to turn simplicity into a defendable IP seems… well, kinda evil.  For its role here, I hope the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office gets a sleigh full of Internet interface design patent applications for Christmas this year. If Google’s design is defendable, then aren’t they all?

But then the thought occurred to me that this simple, little design may provide some important lessons? Sounds like a joke… I know. But the fact is, this interface is the Internet’s most successful homepage. Sure, Google’s superior search technology fuels its success. But a homepage plays an important role in supporting that kind of success.  What makes it work?

GooglInterface

In bringing a more critical eye to this, an interface that I’ve relied on thousands of times over the years, I found I was able to recognize some important design strengths.  I boiled those strengths down to three essential elements.  Later in the week I visited several other highly successful web properties to see if the same elements were similarly present and easily recognizable. And they were. Hmmm.

This exercise helped me uncover a model for approaching homepage and other product interfaces. What I like most about this model is its simplicity. By forcing attention on communicating these three value drivers it thwarts many of the excesses that undermine most homepages.

So here they are: The 3 key elements that are communicated in a successful homepage design.

Confidence

Communicating confidence is crucial for winning an audience or attracting a customer base. Successful homepages make their companies look credible, stable, capable and ready to serve.

How does the Google design communicate confidence? By allowing the homepage to stand on its name, thus allowing its name to become synonymous with the site’s value proposition, web search, the design exudes confidence.

The take away:

Gratuitous design and blustering copy do nothing to project credibility. Confidence is best communicated by a lack of defense. The more space and attention expended on explaining who we are and why we’re great, the less credible we become. Credibility is a quiet art. The less we say the stronger we look. Say who you are. Be who you are. And call it a day. Let satisfied users and customers create your hype.

Utility

Most websites have several jobs to do. How websites accomplish those tasks define their utilities. In simple terms, the job of an effective homepage is to effectively communicate the job of the site.

For Google, the utility is web search. The value is finding what we are looking for online. Google’s design doesn’t allow anything to distract from its utility message. In doing so it ensures that the site is able to do its job.

The take away:

The homepage should  promote the site’s value propositions while communicating the utilities that drive them.  Don’t force the homepage to do more than that crucial  job. Why let your news, promotions, product information or events distract attention from the page’s purpose, when uncovering that valuable content is a part of the utility of the site? Let the homepage deliver a clear understanding of what value propositions the site holds in store, and a sense of how those value propositions are delivered. In other words, the homepage should focus only on helping the site do its job, which is delivering users to the value that they seeks.

Functionality

The homepage isn’t a storefront, a doorway, or a billboard. When a user hits the homepage they should feel like they’ve come inside. The actions and options available on the homepage should establish a basis for the site’s overall navigation and functionality. Users should get an immediate sense of how things works.

The Google homepage  prompts users to enter their search term and hit the search button.  How we use the site to drive the utility and experience the value proposition is made clear, and that functionality is carried over to every other page, as the Google search box stays with us.

The take away:

Users shouldn’t have to leave the homepage to start comprehending how they’ll use the site. By instilling function and navigation early we give users the confidence and the understanding to navigate successfully among the site’s utilities.

So, there you have it.

Because websites are so complex, and every homepage comes with its own set of challenges, it’s not at all surprising that most homepages fail to successfully communicate all three of these elements. I’ve gone back to apply this model to my own homepage designs, only to find that I’ve often fallen short.

But what is striking is how well sites that have become essential to online life have done at communicating these elements around their value propositions within the homepage. Amazon. Ebay. Craigslist. Blogger. Twitter. YouTube.

I wonder if anyone has a patent pending on confidence, utility and functionality?

Using relevancy and targeting to maximize ad revenues 05/24/2008

Posted by Paul Daigle in Uncategorized.
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googleeyeglassIn my last post I discussed how the key to growing a successful and sustainable online advertising businesses is to give users relevance through a healthy attention economy. Google, the Internet’s most profitable company, delivers ad relevancy both within their domain and across the web.

Google developed a slightly better method for ranking websites at a time when Alta Vista, the former leader, watered down its search mission to compete with full service portals like Yahoo. By enhancing search relevancy, Google won the search market.

In 2003 Google introduced AdSense, a tool that serves cost-per-click ads by analyzing and targeting page content on publisher sites. AdSense gives web site owners an easy way to bring contextually relevant ads to their pages. By monetizing web pages with existing CPC advertisers AdSense enabled Google to spread its cost-per-click business across the open web.

Google has clearly demonstrated that the key to online advertising success is relevance. As the owner of operator of an ad driven business your mission must becomes centered on helping your users find relevant ads. This may sound strange, as we all are conditioned to view advertising as a distraction, but if you work with advertisers that have something to offer your users, it’s important that your users and your advertisers are able to connect are the right time.  How can you accomplish this? There are 2 basic methods. One is by targeting user consumption, and the second is by targeting user profiles.

Google’s business targets consumption. A user searches for a specific word or term which demonstrates an interest in a product or content, allowing Google to tailor advertising and web site results that are aligned with the consumer’s immediate needs or interests. Similarly, Google’s AdSense looks at the content being consumed and serves ads that are topically aligned with that content. Both of these methods bring users relevant options that they wouldn’t have had access to otherwise, which is why Google’s response rates are so high and their ad products are so profitable.

In order to provide users with relevancy based on content consumption, your site must be easy to navigate based on need. Clear and thoughtful menus, channels, grouped content, keyword search tools and other drill down methods allow you to create user value and carve out effective advertising opportunities. Yahoo’s Auto, Finance, Real Estate, and Jobs channels each work to build user and advertiser communities around specific needs. The focus of these environments commands much higher ad rates by allowing timely introductions and fueling competition for premium placement. Unfocused pages on the Internet generate .01-.35 cents for every thousand pages viewed. Synergistic environments can often achieve effective CPMs (Cost-per-thousand) of $10-$20. AdSense generates effective CPMs of $1.00- $15, often times doing so on content that wouldn’t sell in a traditional ad-media marketplace.

Whereas consumption targeting is time-based (targeting real time needs and consumption), other methods for targeting are user-based. By identifying and publishing your demographic, psychographic and behavioral data in your media kit, you are building the basic targeting tools that media planners use to consider whether your audience is right for their message.

There are other technology-driven targeting methods that utilize user cookies and/or personal registration data. These methods allow companies to serve relevant ads that are not contextually tied to current consumption. If your company assigns user-cookies that track which users spend time on your food and recipe pages and search on food and recipe related words- you can use that data to serve those users food and recipe related ads even when they are involved in activities that have nothing to do with food. This type of data allows you to create more opportunities to reach specific user segments. If you have an online registration process that records user demographic information like age, gender, industry, interests, income or other personal attributes, you can leverage this data to help advertisers filter out the users who are not in their target market. These capabilities command much higher ad rates because they allow advertisers to concentrate their impressions to ideal users, which eliminates waste.

Both of these methods utilized stored user PII (Personal Identifiable Information).

The key privacy principles which govern the collection and use of PII are “notice” and “choice”. Any ad targeting based on PII needs to be transparent to end-users and to respect their privacy preferences.”  Peter Fleischer, Google’s Global Privacy Counsel,

In other words your privacy policy should clearly state how you collect and use PII, and allow users the means to opt-out of any or all PII targeting. When properly managed, most users will understand that you’re using their data responsibly to bring them relevancy, and will feel that their privacy and security is in good hands. When best practices are ignored you risk the kind of public relations problems epitomized in the past by DoubleClick and Facebook Beacon . Using your PII data to develop ad inventory that you can sell as targeting or filters ensures that you’ll keep your users and their personal activities private and safe.

Advertising is about relevance, efficiency and measurability. Selling online advertising opportunities that maximized these important aspects are crucial to your long term success.