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It’s the experience, stupid

Rarely do I read something that literally prompts me to blurt “YES!” out loud (promptly causing my nearby colleagues to momentarily question my sanity), but after reading Dave McClure’s latest rant, I just couldn’t hold back that excited utterance.  While the main thrust of Dave’s post is directed at startups and the VCs that fund them, there is a universal truth in his words that apply to any consumer internet biz.  To paraphrase Dave – creating brilliant user experiences and efficiently acquiring users to enjoy them is the straw that that stirs the drink, not the elegant code that lives behind the page.  And, by extension, the people who design those experiences, determine how to guide them down the monetization funnel and drive consumer to your site are the critical assets to these businesses.  To quote Dave’s piece:


“Because while it’s actually pretty easy to write a web 2.0 friendly front-end app or website these days, it’s still MOTHERF**KING difficult to create visually-appealing interfaces, and beyond that to design them in ways that are compelling, engaging, drive calls-to-action, and are MEASURABLY beneficial to getting more customers using your products. figuring out game mechanics and activation, designing reinforcement schedules, visual imagery, copy writing, and landing page tests — all of this is not trivial, and only recently are there starting to be good resources for learning how to do it well.”


Dave goes on to say:


“And to be honest, design and marketing aren’t just EQUALLY important as engineering… designers, product managers & [technical, analytical] marketers are usually WAY MORE IMPORTANT than coders.”


Now, selfishly, since I fall in the category of people tasked with creating winning interfaces that optimize conversions and with driving consumers to them, I like the hearty pat on the back Dave offers here.  And I should point out that I have tremendous respect for the amazingly talented developers and engineers I’ve worked with.  That said, Dave simply couldn’t be more right.


While intricately woven code is key for data-rich web apps (definitely the case for us at, solving for those issues is a relatively small part of the puzzle.  Terrifically complex algorithms that tightly match user criteria with a meaty data set isn’t going to be, nor has it been to date, the winning formula for our business.  It’s just not a differentiator.  The creation and continued refinement of an intuitive and smartly designed interface is, or can be.


I also agree with Dave that traditional marketers have been put on notice – adapt or wither.  The same goes for much of the established ad agency world.  If you intend to build an audience for online businesses, understand that technical competency outweighs your rolodex of press contacts and that copywriting, while key, is about clear value propositions and calls to actions, not slogans and taglines.  As someone who has had to evolve their thinking in exactly the same way, I can say first hand that I had to unlearn some traditional marketing training to be relevant and effective in a consumer internet biz context.


Thanks again, Dave, for today’s “YES!” moment.



Is SEO Ruining the Internet?

John Dvorak at PC Magazine just blogged about one of the often overlooked consequences of “good” SEO – erosion of the user experience.  He describes his pain in attempting to use the major engines to search for quality & trusted content on purchasing decisions like which cell phone to buy.  Ecommerce sites of every flavor dominate his SERPs, successfully optimizing their key transactional landing pages to rank for terms like  “best cell phone” that he believes users type in expecting reviews and other commentary to aid in the purchase decision.

Despite the fact that John has some bias here (he laments the fact that these reams of ecommerce pages overshadow good PC Mag content), he makes a valid and underappreciated point.  As marketers/publishers/content owners, we want the greatest possible visibility for our product, article, blog or lolcat photo.  We’re trained to identify the key terms users search for in our categories and take pains to cater our site architecture, content and distribution/link strategies to those terms.  While it’s hard to argue with the results of a well-executed traffic acquisition plan like this, I rarely hear people talk in terms of user intent or goals in relation to their search queries.

In the case of “best cell phone,” the well-constructed ecommerce page that ranks on page one can probably cite a hefty number of sales/conversions, which one could interpret as an indication the user found what he/she was looking for.  On the other hand, could it not be that the user never found exactly what they needed, assumed the quality reviews they seek were not to be found and settled on just buying a phone that seemed good enough from a site they found on Google page one?  Credit the ecommerce site for being opportunistic in this case, but I would not call that sale a success story for that user.

A secondary point John makes is that users really looking for that quality content may be better served just going straight to a reliable source, avoiding search engines altogether.  I have to agree that in many cases, this is going to be the most successful user strategy (it often is for me).  That said, this requires those reliable sources to have a strong & recognizable brand and, quite frankly, far less mindshare and effort is devoted there than to SEO strategies.  Based on my experience, direct traffic conversion is going to beat other sources in most cases, which even makes a stronger case for brand investment at a similar or greater level than for SEO.

Ultimately, the best online properties will do both well, but in my current world (the rentals/real estate category) the focus remains disproportionate in favor of very tactical SEO approaches, and that’s a shame.

Curious to hear others’ take…