by Russ Ward (@russcward)
Search: Cognitive Construct
As we know, search engine optimization (SEO) starts with the cognitive construct of the user and their choice of words that best describe this construct.
Yet the results of any search are not just based on semantics alone.
In the world we live in, the meaning of communication is significantly dominated by what we see. Language (speech, text and intonation) proportionately much less than the imagery that generally accompanies it. And when it comes to web sites and their design semiotics and semantics equally apply.
In everything we see, there are signs and symbols that create meaning and context. The science of these signs and symbols is called semiotics. In 2011 simple examples of signs that have almost universal meaning can arguably said to be stop signs, smiley’s and emoticons.
Of course some signs and symbols are cultural in nature and are only recognized within that culture. Further, some semiotic elements are recognized across cultures yet with different meaning.
In any case, we are deeply ingrained with tens of thousands of these semiotics signs and symbols that we recognize with a thought.
Semiotics and Web Sites
As with all other written and visual communications, web site design is grounded in the use of signs and symbols that are directly related to site usability and experience for the user.
Semiotic structures can be understood as user guidance on a number of levels. Web site pages, user menu structure location, call to action buttons and engagement tools are perceived as having “given functionality”. These structures include white space, images, color, text, font, page layout, shading and lines among other elements.
Search and Semiotics
When we search based on words (semantics), the results of that search (if the user finds what they are looking for) are not just based on the semantic match but the combination of a semantic and a semiotic “match”.
By this I mean that the semiotics must also fit into the expected cognitive representation (conscious and unconscious) of the web page so that the words, signs and symbols fit the users cognitive construct. A mismatch of one or both of these items is very likely to cause the user to bounce off the landing page and look elsewhere.
If we think in terms of the process of arriving at a set point in time – the users cognition of the page they arrive at is polychronic in time (words, signs and symbols are understood all at once) and not monochronic in time (one item after the other).
To match the users unconscious expectations the best approach is to a polychronic experience for the user to meet their expectations immediately.
Good web site design effectively uses semantic and semiotic elements that directly support the users cognitive construct and is interpreted as a “match”.
These signs and symbols convey meaning and hence the search “match”.
To provide some more interpretation I have added some simple examples of the complexity of how semiotics are embedded in a site.
Here we can see in this simple wireframe, the icons, arrows and boxes do not need any interpretation as we recognize and understand their meaning. Equally the words Home, Products, Company and Blog represent pull down menus – note that the vertical lines between these words tell us in an unspoken way that these menu structures are separate. We can immediately interpret the basic structure of the navigation underlying the page content (which has yet to be added).
So what are the Takeaways?
1. Consider Semiotics and Semantics in your page design. Even as the user travels into the site architecture the information revealed needs to match the users expectations.
2. Spend time evaluating the semiotics included in you page and how it can impact the user. Even white space (or lack of it) can impact the impression new visitors perceive.
3. In terms of search – it is imperative that the landing page contains the expected semantic and semiotic elements to satisfy the search intent. Of course, this implies that landing page that includes everything (including the kitchen sink) will not match all keywords in a search. Therefore you need to consider constructing more focused landing pages when you have diverse content. This will reduce your bounce rate.
4. Pay attention to what might seem insignificant. If the visual design makes what should be intuitive navigation a “guessing game” for users on their first visit, scrap it and start again. Seriously – start again.
5. Finally, look at your site metrics – and consider the highest search terms used to find the site and then look at your landing page and the bounce rate. Do the main terms used to find your site match the landing page content?