In which I become part of the problem

I’ve just been looking at the Google Analytics report for this site and spotted that some visitors found me while searching for “robert dyas anti fungal paint”. Of course, those visitors will end up on this page, which is a blog post about how I couldn’t find any anti-fungal stuff in Robert Dyas. (I would advise caution before reading the blog post; the tale may be too thrilling for web users of a sensitive disposition.)

I believe that blogging about bad user experiences, in detail, is a way of bearing witness to the failings of an organisation. Giving the detail of the experience is a way of laying out specific problems for the world to see, so it's a more constructive process than just saying “Company X is rubbish”.

The problem is that if you’re talking about user experience as a consumer (rather than, say, as a worker or a health service user), most of the time you’re expressing frustration at not finding what you want to buy. You’re talking about shops that set up mazes to confuse you, or websites that pretend to have things in stock but don’t really. And the problem with talking about the absence of those things on the web is that you become part of the maze. My post about a fruitless search for anti-fungal cleaner in Robert Dyas was inadvertently optimised to become the top result when you search Yahoo for the name of the shop plus the name of the stuff. So my “bearing witness” becomes another irritatingly irrelevant search result.

Way back when, I used to do what I would now describe as black-hat SEO copywriting: writing copy designed for search engines rather than human beings. My job was to skilfully stuff my copy with keywords so that people searching for e.g. “made to measure curtains” would get a site I’d written as the first result. But the company never actually sold made to measure curtains, or indeed anything else. We just sold advertising. Getting traffic was about getting people to come to the site and click on the adverts, nothing more.

The thinking was that someone searching for curtains would get my site about curtains, realise it wasn’t actually selling curtains and then click on an advert to get to a site that really was selling curtains. The advertiser would pay us for every clickthrough and everybody would be happy.

Of course, it didn’t really work that way. Increasing numbers of advertisers had the same business model; in other words, they weren’t selling curtains either. They were pushing the idea of curtains, but they were really just selling clickthroughs too. So a user wanting curtains might end up clicking on many adverts for curtains without actually finding anyone willing to sell them curtains. They might even click on enough adverts to come full circle.

For “curtains”, you can insert any of the other things we sort-of-pretended to sell: socks, bedroom furniture, car insurance, burger franchises, you name it.

Was it a sustainable business model, this game of grabbing people who wanted to buy things and then not selling them the things? Well, the company I worked for went bust in 2005. I don’t know about the others. The whole experience made me realise that SEO for its own sake is a terrible business idea as well as morally bankrupt. SEO has to be part of a proper web strategy, one that involves writing for humans and designing for humans and user testing and doing all the other things that suggest you respect your customers – including actually selling them stuff, of course.

And now my blogging about stuff-that’s-hard-to-buy is making that stuff even harder to buy, albeit only slightly. This has caused me some concern.

Mind you, you’ll get more useful information searching Yahoo and reading my blog post than you will from guessing the URL of the Robert Dyas site and trying Come to think of it, you’ll also get more information than you would if you tried searching the real Robert Dyas site for "anti-fungal paint" or "anti-fungal cleaner".

My blog post tells you, in essence: “My experience shows that it’s hard to find out whether or not Robert Dyas stock things. But they definitely don't stock anti-fungal cleaner for garden furniture."

Searching the real Robert Dyas site tells you, in essence: “Your search term sort of worked because it returned some results, but the results bear no relation to the search term, so you don’t know if the thing you wanted really exists or not, and it’s probably all your fault.”

So my whiny blog post is still more useful to the user than the actual site of the company whose products they wanted. That’s enough to keep me blogging about bad user experiences, even if I do worry about becoming part of the problem.