Google Now Helps You Improve Your Site Performance

A new addition in Webmaster Tools this week sees Google becoming your own personal usability and accessibility consultant.

Site Performance, an experimental feature added to the Webmaster Tools console courtesy of Google Labs, provides detailed information about your site’s load time and gives suggestions for speeding it up. It includes a chart of your site performance data over time, which can help determine latency triggers.

As explained in Google’s official blog post about it, the Site Performance console includes examples of specific pages and their actual page load times, plus Page Speed suggestions that can help reduce latency.

I was pretty shocked when I logged into Webmaster Tools today to find my blog pages take an average of 6 seconds to load. Google states that this is slower than 83% of sites! The Example Pages and Page Speed Suggestions revealed the culprit was a banner ad that was not optimized and a couple of extra DNA fetches on some pages so I was able to fix the issues pretty quickly.

The load time data is apparently sourced from aggregated information by users of the Google Toolbar but it’s important to remember that it’s all averaged. A specific user may experience your site faster or slower than the average depending on their location and network conditions.

As a Labs tool, Site Performance is still under development and Google are seeking feedback on it via the Webmaster Tools Forum.

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Google Upsizes Their Search Box

So they say size doesn’t matter. Well tell that to Google. They’ve just practically doubled the size of the search field on their home page. They’ve also increased the size of the “Google Search” and “I’m Feeling Lucky” buttons. If you conducted more than one search at Google.com on Wednesday, you might have noticed the change take effect live as the tweak was rolled out across the various datacenters.

The search box is now thicker and much longer than before. The character limit appears to be unchanged at around 96 characters but the text you type in is much larger. The two buttons beneath the search box are about 30% larger than before and have square rather than round, corners.

Compare the original search box with the new search box below:

The change went mostly unnoticed until a blog post on Mashable went viral on Twitter, closely followed by a TechCrunch post on the subject.

The motivation for the change was initially unclear, but I assumed it to be a design usability issue, possibly in response to Bing’s clean search interface.

Google Vice President of User E Melissa Mayer finally confirmed the usability aspect later in the day with her post about the tweak :

“Starting today, you’ll notice on our homepage and on our search results pages, our search box is growing in size. Although this is a very simple idea and an even simpler change, we’re excited about it – because it symbolizes our focus on search and because it makes our clean, minimalist homepage even easier and more fun to use. The new, larger Google search box features larger text when you type so you can see your query more clearly. It also uses a larger text size for the suggestions below the search box, making it easier to select one of the possible refinements.”

The tweak is now live on most of Google’s datacenters and regional sites.

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Google Displaying Breadcrumb Navigation in SERP Snippets

A couple of bloggers have reported seeing breadcrumb trails in Google Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs) lately, meaning they may be testing the inclusion of breadcrumb navigation as part of site snippets.

Breadcrumb navigation shows the user’s path in relation to their current location. It’s the little trail of keywords you often see at the top of the page, below the main header image telling you what section of a site you are on. There’s a good explanation here.

Philipp Lenssen of Google Blogoscoped blogged about seeing breadcrumbs in Google SERPs as far back as July. Leo Fogarty has seen a couple of results on closely related search queries.  Now Chris Crum of Web Pro News reports a few random instances of breadcrumb SERP usage.

Google have always encouraged webmasters to use breadcrumb navigation for usability purposes and now they’re apparently going to reward webmasters who take their advice by including breadcrumbs within their site snippet.

Here’s a screengrab of how breadcrumbs look in the Google SERPs for the search query “car hire Spain”:

As you can see, the keywords in the breadcrumbs that match the search query are bolded, meaning that they are included in the algorithmic ranking factors for that query. So potentially, the use of breadcrumb navigation as an SEO tactic has just become a whole lot more important.

A check of the pages displaying the breadcrumbs in their snippets confirms the use of breadcrumb navigation and the exact breadcrumb trail included in the snippet e.g. http://www.auto-europe.co.uk/car-hire/Spain.cfm.

I personally haven’t seen any crumbed SERPs but it’s apparently quite rare so far, with the testing possibly limited to UK sites.

Have you seen any? Please let us know via the comments below.

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Q and A: Why can’t I see my Alt Img tags?

QuestionHi Kalena

I have been practising on my own site.  When I add an alt img tag I still cannot see the text when I scroll over the image.  I don’t understand this, could you please help? My URL is [URL removed for privacy reasons]. There is no alt img tag at present (I took it out because it didn’t seem to work).

Thanks in advance and regards,

Barry

—————————————————————————————————

Hi Barry

If you’re using Firefox, you won’t see alt tags when you mouseover. But if you right click on the image with your mouse and view *properties*, you should see your alt text in the alt field.

Or you could just view your site in Internet Explorer where the mouseovers should work fine.

Regardless of which browser you use, search engines will be able to index your alt tags. Plus text to speech software will be able to read them for visually-impaired visitors, so you should include them wherever possible for site usability purposes.

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Webstock 09 : Joshua Porter

Live blogging Designing Sign Up Screens and Flows presentation at Webstock 09 by Author of “Designing for the Social Web” Joshua Porter.

Josh got started in this biz because every client he ever had came to him with problems relating to web site sign ups.

Joshua wrote a book called The Usage Lifecycle. First up: Sign up is hard. If you have 8% of first time visitors signing up for a *free* account, you’re doing well.

When we think about the hurdle of sign up, we generally think about the friction of interface. So how do you remove friction? The Tumblr sign up is a great example of this. The URL box shows you what your URL will be. No need to understand sub-domains or anything else. The action button says “sign up and start posting” – it’s clear what will happen when you sign up.

We’re starting to see cool ways to make forms easier to use. Things like:

- Password strength

- Check username availability

- Inline help

- refilling fields upon error

- sending username in confirmation email

- Show/hide password

Joshua is currently working on a Facebook app. Facebook applications are great to work on because of all the different metrics. He’s been trying to improve the ease of use of typical Facebook forms:

Original Flow looks like:

1) Confirm personal info

2) Add your friends

3) Invite others

4) Getting started

Original Conversion Funnel:

Of the 100% of people who started the sign up process using the original flow, only 14% made it to the getting started screen. So at every level of the app sign up, we lost users.

What would happen if we took down some of the steps? He started by removing steps 1 and 3. The new flow was:

2) Add your friends

4) Getting started

The new conversion funnel resulted in 86% of users making it to the *getting started* screen.  Always ask clients why they want their user sign up forms changed. Focus tends to be on the form. But the form is not the problem of sign up. There’s a lot of good info on the web about form design. That’s not the issue. The issue is motivation.

“If ease of use were the only requirement, we would all be riding tricycles” – Douglas Engelbart

You need to change people’s minds about your software. Sign up is in the mind, not the web. People will find a way to sign up if they are motivated enough.

What are we asking?

1) A change in behaviour – old habits die hard

2) Give up accepted shared practices

3) Jump into the unknown

4) Shift from potential to kinectic energy – psychology behind wanting to change

The Psychology of Sign up = 9 x Effect by John T. Gourville. People tend to overvalue the software they currently use by about a factor of 3. Software makers tend to overvalue the software they offer by about a factor of 3. This creates the 9 x Effect. That’s why entrepreneurs tend to think they’re going to set the world on fire.

What we imagine people are thinking: confident, decisive, passionate

What they’re actually thinking: unsure, scared, non-commital

The Preconditions of Sign up:

- product research

- considering an alternative

- learning about the product

- comparison with other options

- reconnaissance

The form goes where the moment of readiness to sign up comes along. Therefore, pre-conditions are very important.

Design for 3 distinct visitor types:

1) I know I want to sign up

2) I want to make sure this is for me

3) I’m skeptical

Ways to tackle sign up:

1) Immediate Engagement

Geni’s family tree image where user can picture their *place* in the tree. NetVibes sign up reminds people it’s free, provides unobtrusive help comment window. Most importantly, you are allowed to create a personalized page via various fields etc BUT you have to sign up in order to be able to save that page. Slide widget that is on many social media sites uses similar thing. If you click on other people’s slide-shows, you can add and customize a photo BEFORE you sign up. Tripit use a helpful signup graphic and allows you to send travel data such as flight confirmations etc and then Tripit creates the account for you based on your return address. You’ve never even filled out a form, just sent an email. Posterous also has an email generated sign-up process and has “sign up” crossed through to remind people how easy it is

2) Write to Reduce Commitment

Copywriting is the easiest, fastest way to improve your sign-up process.

Highrise did A/B testing using Google Web Site Optimizer. They tested copy at top of sign-up form. Most conversions resulted from:

“30 day Free Trial on All Accounts. Sign-up takes less thann 60 seconds. Pick a plan to get started”.

Another example was PearBudget which started as an Excel spreadsheet and was converted to a web app. It allows you to create an online budget. The sign up is simply a pop up field “Save Your Budget” with an email and password field.

3) Levels of Description

First level is your elevator pitch – one line description of service, logo, screenshot

Second level includes more detail – features, benefits, how to join

Third is In-depth level – more complicated, details, links to deeper levels of information

The NetFlix sign up is a great example of the 3 levels in action. They also add their phone number for persons still needing help during the sign up process.

Bill My Clients recently changed their sign up which was not successful. Freshbooks has a great user interface (yay team!).

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