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About Us Information on Websites

Representing a company or organization on the Internet is one of a
website’s most important jobs. Effectively explaining the company’s
purpose and what it stands for provides essential support for all other
website goals.

Unfortunately, while most sites offer an About Us section, they often do a poor job of communicating the crucial information it should contain.

User Research: Two Rounds

To find out how users find and interpret website profiles of companies
and organizations, we conducted user testing of sites run by 63
organizations in five general categories:

  • Large companies, such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, China Mobile, Citigroup, Eli Lilly, Vivendi, and Yamaha.
  • Medium-sized companies, such as Body Trends, Cintas, Pier 1 Imports, and Titan Corporation.
  • Smaller companies, such as GiftTree.com, ImmunoGen, Nabi Biopharmaceuticals, OneCall, and Paper Style.
  • Government agencies, such as the U.S.
    Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Department of
    the Interior, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Small Business
    Administration.
  • Non-profits, such as American Refugee
    Committee, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, St. Jude’s Children’s
    Research Hospital, and the United Nations Children’s Fund.

We tested 15 sites in our first round of research 5 years ago, and 48 sites in our new study.

On each site, we gave users one open-ended task: evaluate the organization. We also gave them several directed tasks,
such as to find out who runs the organization, what community or social
programs the organization contributes to, and when the organization was
founded.

Most test participants were mainstream Web users, investment
analysts, or journalists with at least 2 years’ Internet experience. In
Study 1, we included a few teenagers because the goals of putting
corporate information on the Web often include supporting student
projects, building long-term loyalty, and attracting interns.

We conducted most sessions in the United States, and a few in
Hong Kong to ensure the international applicability of our findings.

Trends in About Us Usability

We conducted the first study 5 years ago. That’s not much time in the user experience field; human nature and user behavior tend to be stable and change slowly, if at all. Even so, it’s enough time between the two studies to let us assess any big trends.

First, the happy news: About Us usability has increased. The average success rate was 70% in Study 1 and 79% in Study 2. Although the usability increase is not as big as those we saw in our recent second study of store finders and locators, it’s certainly respectable to grow success rates by about 2 percentage points per year.

Progress was particularly good for the task of finding contact information, such as the company’s main address. Success for this task increased from 62% to 91%.
A few companies continue to make contact information virtually
impossible to find on the Web, and some sites seem to deliberately hide
address listings and phone numbers. Doing so will backfire, though,
because users view such sites as having very low credibility.

The less-good news: Task success for finding out what the company or organization does actually dropped, from 90% to 81%. In place of a frank summary of the business, marketese and blah-blah text ruled the day on many sites.

The even-less-good news: Users’ subjective satisfaction with About Us sections decreased from 5.2 to 4.6 (on a 1-7 scale). How can satisfaction go down when overall success rates are up? Because user expectations
for usable websites have grown even higher in recent years. Sites that
make it hard to find the most basic information about an organization
get dinged hard these days; an About Us area that users may have accepted in the past will no longer satisfy them.

One definite trend is higher user interest in video,
especially when it shows interesting or complex products, reports on
corporate events, or showcases the personality of the CEO or other key
staff. One thing hasn’t changed, though: Web users are still impatient
and prefer short videos. One user, for example, had this to say about a
long video: “It’s a little long-winded for a video. It should have
more of the product and stuff showing and less talking. […] I’m going
to stop that one.”

Overviews: Providing Key Context

To direct users to your About Us section, I recommend offering a homepage link labeled either About <name-of-company> or About Us.
This link need not be the most prominent on the homepage, but it should
be present and clearly visible. In our studies, users had trouble
locating company information when the link had a nonstandard name, like
Info Center, or when it was placed near graphical elements that looked like advertisements and was thus ignored.

We recommend providing About Us information at 4 levels of detail:

  1. Tagline on the homepage: A few words or a brief sentence summarizing what the organization does.
  2. Summary: 1-2 paragraphs at the top of the main About Us page that offer a bit more detail about the organization’s goal and main accomplishments.
  3. Fact sheet: A section following the summary that elaborates on its key points and other essential facts about the organization.
  4. Detailed information: Subsidiary pages with more depth for people who want to learn more about the organization.

This layered content presentation forms an inverted pyramid
that uses hypertext to shield users from overwhelming details, while
making specific information available to those who need it.

For example, average users will rarely click a link for “corporate
governance,” but that destination page can be important for
sophisticated investors or business journalists. This is one of the few
cases in which an obscure link label enhances usability: People who
don’t know the term “corporate governance” won’t click it (because
people don’t click links they don’t understand). In this case, that’s
okay — users who don’t know the term probably won’t need the
associated information.

At the top of your content pyramid, a good tagline
helps users understand the rest of the site by providing context for
the detailed content. Similarly, reading the organizational summary
gives them context for the fact sheet that follows it on the main About Us page.

Although taglines are usually horrible on today’s websites, we did see some good ones in our testing, including HSBC’s tagline: The world’s local bank. One user said, “It
says we are the world’s local bank — that’s a softening concept.
I like that, they have global resources, but it’s available to you
locally. ‘The world’s local bank’ — I really like this.”

Summary statements often degenerate into worthless mission statements
with feel-good verbiage and no specifics. One site had the following
bold-faced summary at the top of its About Us
page: “X Corporation provides highly specialized services to businesses
of all types throughout North America.” Aside from giving the company’s
geographical focus, this content-free statement was useless and
prompted one test user to remark, “I still don’t know what they do.”

Of course, the need for scannability, conciseness, and plainspoken exposition extends from the overview page to About Us section’s mass of interior pages as well. Compare, for example, these user comments about two different company history pages:

[Not liking Bayer, which used a complex Flash-based presentation]: “They
have clunky paragraphs. Key points work better to convey these things.
They have years highlighted, but it’s easier to digest if it’s in a
true timeline fashion.”

[Liking Pier 1 Imports, which had a scannable history page]: “I
like the page on the history. It gives the years and what they’ve done
since they started the business. You can learn a lot by just reading
this little page here — milestones that they’ve accomplished
since they’ve been in existence. It’s bulleted here and you can find
it.”

Good/Bad Examples

Alcoa provided a good example of the 4-stage model.

Tagline: “Global excellence in aluminum.”

Summary: “Alcoa is the world leader in the production
and management of primary aluminum, fabricated aluminum and alumina
combined, through its active and growing participation in all major
aspects of the industry.” (Followed by a second paragraph summarizing
the company’s main target markets.)

Fact sheet: Nice use of bulleted lists (following guidelines for writing for the Web), supplemented by clean and useful business graphics.

Detailed information: 14 additional pages listed in a drop-down menu with good information scent (except for a link named “it all starts with dirt,” which should have been called “history”).

Screenshot of Alcoa's main 'About Us' page
Screenshot of GSA.gov's main 'About Us' page

The main About Us pages for Alcoa (good) and the U.S. General Services Administration (bad).

In contrast, the U.S. General Services Administration skipped the
information model’s first 3 levels entirely and went straight to a menu
of 49 detailed links. No tagline (not even on the homepage), no
summary, no fact sheet. Without these higher overview levels, it was
very hard for users to make sense of the crushing details in the About GSA section. No context, no understanding.

Why Explain Yourself?

Fortune-500 companies and major federal government agencies might well ask why they should bother providing About Us
information. After all, they’re big, important, and presumably famous.
They really shouldn’t have to bother with peons who are too stupid to
know all about them.

However common in major corporations and government agencies,
arrogance is an unproductive attitude no matter how big you are. People
with little to no knowledge about your organization might have several
legitimate reasons for wanting to learn about it. For example, they
might be:

  • Professionals who are new to your industry and want to interact
    with business partners and investigate potential vendors. If you’re a B2B site, you need to cater to these new users.
  • People who take up new sports or hobbies, discover a new genre
    of literature, are diagnosed with a new disease, start eating a new
    type of food, or otherwise become interested in companies and
    organizations that they’ve never dealt with before. If you’re a B2C
    site, you need to cater to these new users.
  • Journalists who are writing their first story on a new beat or first story including your company. If you want PR, you need to cater to these new users.
  • Individual investors who read something positive about your
    company or saw it pop out of a statistical screen of stock metrics. If
    you’re a publicly traded company and want new investors, you need to cater to these new users.
  • Job seekers who were attracted by one of your ads, but want to
    learn more about the organization before applying. If you’re expanding
    your staff, you need to cater to these new users.
  • Children who are investigating new areas of knowledge. You might need to cater to these new users.

E-commerce sites, transactional sites, and online services sites need a strong About Us section because users often wonder who’s behind
a Web-based service, how it’s funded, and whether it’s credible. If you
order from an e-commerce site, can you trust the company to ship the
package? Will it accept a return if the product arrives in poor
condition? If you register on a site, will it sell your personal
information to anyone who can pay, and thus expose you to endless spam
about everything from transaction-related products to offensive porn?

For government sites, it’s a basic point of democracy that all
taxpayers have access to clear information about various departments
and how those departments are using tax dollars — whether or not
they’re experts in an agency’s topic area.

Finally, for non-profits, a good About Us section is a must for attracting donations from a broader donor base. (See also: Government agencies’ and non-profits’ ROI from usability.)

Trust and credibility
are major issues on the Web, where even the biggest company exists as
only a few words and pictures in a browser window. The most deceitful
and unethical company can look as good as a company with a long history
of community involvement and honest customer relationships. Explaining
who you are and where you come from does matter, as do simple things
like providing management biographies and photos.

When it comes to design, it’s easy to balance the needs of transactions
and corporate information. By all means, dedicate most of your homepage
to sales, current offers, and navigation to products or services. Just
remember to include a simple link to the About Us
section. The link doesn’t have to be the first or most prominent.
Indeed, if you’re using a standard left-hand navigation column, you can
place the About Us link at the very bottom of the list. Just don’t hide it.

Connecting to Users

In any conversation, saying who you are and what you do is basic to
good manners. In business, it’s also good to establish credibility and
respect by explaining your company’s origins, how you view your
business, and how you relate to the community.

The Web is very depersonalized, but from our earliest usability studies, we’ve seen that users like getting a sense of the company behind the website.

Having a good About Us section facilitates this
understanding. Clearly stating what you do helps customers understand
your site as a whole. Of course, your overall site is what ultimately
represents your organization to users. People look at product pages and
read the site’s content when they’re evaluating an organization as a
possible vendor, business partner, employer, investment, or (in the
case of charities) donation recipient. Communication isn’t restricted
to About Us. But dedicating an area to providing users with
facts about your organization and its history and values helps pull all
of the site’s content together.

http://www.useit.com/alertbox/about-us-pages.html

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One of us is smarter than all of us

The wisdom of crowds comes not from the consensus decision of the group, but from the aggregation of the ideas/thoughts/decisions of each individual in the group.

At its simplest form, it means that if you take a bunch of people
and ask them (as individuals) to answer a question, the average of each
of those individual answers will likely be better than if the group works together to come up with a single answer. And he has a ton of real examples (but you’ll just have to read the book for them ; )

[Also] diversity increases the quality of the aggregated wisdom of the group.
If you have too many people who are alike, then no matter how smart
they all are, they may not come up with the same quality of answer than
if you have less smart folks who have a very different point of view. Diversity brings new information. And that new information is valuable.

In order for the crowd to have wisdom, the crowd has to be made up of individuals who argue! Or as he puts it in the book,

“Diversity
and independence are important because the best collective decisions
are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or
compromise. An intelligent group, especially when confronted with
cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions
in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with.
Instead, it figures out how to use mechanisms–like market prices, or
intelligent voting systems–to aggregate and produce collective
judgements that represent now what any one person in the group thinks
but rather, in some sense, what they all think.”

And my favorite line that sums it up:

“Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible.”

http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2005/03/one_of_us_iisi_.html

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How to market to the information-rich

The Web is the land of the skeptic, the cynic, the impatient,

time-starved, information-overloaded consumer who is on a

mission. The mission is to solve a problem, answer a question,

get a good deal. The Web is the land of the comparison shopper,

the person who wants to read reviews to see if the product is

actually any good.

Trying to grab the attention and tug the sleeve of this

information-rich consumer is much more likely to irritate than

to interest them.

Marketing must change. Marketing used to say: “Don’t go down
that road, go down this road. My destination is much more
interesting.” On the Web, we choose our destination and will not
change it. Marketing must now say: “I can help you get to your
destination faster and easier.”

http://www.gerrymcgovern.com/nt/2008/nt-2008-09-22-marketing.htm

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Send Them Away, If You Want Them to Come Back

There are two main reasons why news sites are reluctant to send
readers away by linking to third-party content. First, you
shouldn’t send people away or else they won’t come back to
your site. Second, a page with links that sends people away has low
engagement, which doesn’t serve advertisers well.

But if you actually look at the data, both of these assumptions are completely wrong.

Here’s a list of the top 30 news sites for May 2008, ranked by sessions per person (source: Nielsen Online):

And here’s a list of top news sites for June 2008, ranked by time per person (source: Nielsen Online):

What do you notice about the top site on both lists?

First, the top site has twice as many sessions per person. Second,
the top site has nearly twice as much time spent per person. So users
of this site find it indispensible, and they are highly engaged.

But the most important difference between the top site and all the
other sites, is that this top site — Drudge — has nothing
but LINKS.

That’s right folks. Drudge beats every original content news site by a two to one margin.

Drudge is also one of the largest news sites that isn’t built on an offline brand or a communications portal.

Still thinks sending people away with links is not a good strategy online?

Ask Google. They do pretty well.

Oh, and here’s a dirty little secret of sites like NYTimes.com
— you would think their high quality, in-depth content would
yield engagement numbers that could beat Drudge. But these metrics are
averages of all site visitors, and the averages of the original content
sites are being dragged down because many of the unique visitors come
from sites like… Drudge and Google — and those visitors
are not devoted users.

Drudge, on the other hand, is probably close to 100% devoted users.

What kind of users do you want your site to have?

And here’s another dirty little secret — Drudge is one of (if not the) largest referrer of traffic to most of the newspapers on these lists.

But all of these sites are content (pun intended) just to chase traffic from Drudge.

Here’s one last bit of data — from Drudge’s media kit:

Page view statistics
500 million page views monthly
1.95 billion ad impressions monthly
12 million unique visitors monthly
1.75 million daily unique visitors (weekday)
1 million daily unique visitors (weekend day)

Assuming 60% sell-through at $4 CPM… that’s $56 million annual revenue.

One guy. Linking.

Why was it again that your news site doesn’t link out?

UPDATE

Some commenters are taking issue with the data:

Drudge’s session numbers are worthless. Unlike
every site on the list, Drudge has an artificially high auto-refresh
rate of something under 3 minutes, I think it might even be as low as 2
minutes. The conclusions are fairly obvious– every person who
leaves Drudge’s page open in a new tab, or leaves their desk for
lunch created dozens or even hundreds of “new” sessions.

I find it ironic that most of these commenters came here from
Techmeme, a site that has nothing but links and that auto-refreshes.
Techmeme, like Drudge, is INDISPENSIBLE for its users, something any
news site should want to claim. And Techmeme has found the key to
unlokcing value for advertisiers (hint: it’s not display ads)
sponsorships in the form of content links, just like Techeme’s editorial content.

And really, what news site wouldn’t want to be open in a
reader’s browser being refreshed all day, instead of hoping for
drive-by referrals from aggregators?

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Duplicate Content (Google)

Duplicate content. There’s just something about it. We keep writing about it, and people keep asking about it. In particular, I still hear a lot of webmasters worrying about whether they may have a “duplicate content penalty.”

Let’s
put this to bed once and for all, folks: There’s no such thing as a
“duplicate content penalty.” At least, not in the way most people mean
when they say that.

There are some penalties that are related to
the idea of having the same content as another site—for example, if
you’re scraping content from other sites and republishing it, or if you
republish content without adding any additional value. These tactics
are clearly outlined (and discouraged) in our Webmaster Guidelines:

  • Don’t create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content.
  • Avoid… “cookie cutter” approaches such as affiliate programs with little or no original content.
  • If your site participates in an affiliate program, make sure that your site adds value. Provide unique and relevant content that gives users a reason to visit your site first.

(Note that while scraping content from others is discouraged, having others scrape you is a different story; check out this post if you’re worried about being scraped.)

But
most site owners whom I hear worrying about duplicate content aren’t
talking about scraping or domain farms; they’re talking about things
like having multiple URLs on the same domain that point to the same
content. Like www.example.com/skates.asp?color=black&brand=riedell and www.example.com/skates.asp?brand=riedell&color=black.
Having this type of duplicate content on your site can potentially
affect your site’s performance, but it doesn’t cause penalties. From
our article on duplicate content:

Duplicate
content on a site is not grounds for action on that site unless it
appears that the intent of the duplicate content is to be deceptive and
manipulate search engine results. If your site suffers from duplicate
content issues, and you don’t follow the advice listed above, we do a
good job of choosing a version of the content to show in our search
results.

This type of non-malicious duplication is fairly common, especially since many CMSs
don’t handle this well by default. So when people say that having this
type of duplicate content can affect your site, it’s not because you’re
likely to be penalized; it’s simply due to the way that web sites and
search engines work.

Most search engines strive for a certain
level of variety; they want to show you ten different results on a
search results page, not ten different URLs that all have the same
content. To this end, Google tries to filter out duplicate documents so
that users experience less redundancy. You can find details in this blog post, which states:

  1. When
    we detect duplicate content, such as through variations caused by URL
    parameters, we group the duplicate URLs into one cluster.
  2. We select what we think is the “best” URL to represent the cluster in search results.
  3. We then consolidate properties of the URLs in the cluster, such as link popularity, to the representative URL.

Here’s how this could affect you as a webmaster:

  • In step 2, Google’s idea of what the “best” URL is might not be the same as your idea. If you want to have control over whether www.example.com/skates.asp?color=black&brand=riedell or www.example.com/skates.asp?brand=riedell&color=black
    gets shown in our search results, you may want to take action to
    mitigate your duplication. One way of letting us know which URL you
    prefer is by including the preferred URL in your Sitemap.
  • In
    step 3, if we aren’t able to detect all the duplicates of a particular
    page, we won’t be able to consolidate all of their properties. This may
    dilute the strength of that content’s ranking signals by splitting them
    across multiple URLs.

In most cases Google does a good job
of handling this type of duplication. However, you may also want to
consider content that’s being duplicated across domains. In particular,
deciding to build a site whose purpose inherently involves content
duplication is something you should think twice about if your business
model is going to rely on search traffic, unless you can add a lot of
additional value for users. For example, we sometimes hear from
Amazon.com affiliates who are having a hard time ranking for content
that originates solely from Amazon. Is this because Google wants to
stop them from trying to sell Everyone Poops? No; it’s because how the heck are they going to outrank Amazon
if they’re providing the exact same listing? Amazon has a lot of online
business authority (most likely more than a typical Amazon affiliate
site does), and the average Google search user probably wants the
original information on Amazon, unless the affiliate site has added a
significant amount of additional value.

Lastly,
consider the effect that duplication can have on your site’s bandwidth.
Duplicated content can lead to inefficient crawling: when Googlebot
discovers ten URLs on your site, it has to crawl each of those URLs
before it knows whether they contain the same content (and thus before
we can group them as described above). The more time and resources that
Googlebot spends crawling duplicate content across multiple URLs, the
less time it has to get to the rest of your content.

In summary:
Having duplicate content can affect your site in a variety of ways; but
unless you’ve been duplicating deliberately, it’s unlikely that one of
those ways will be a penalty. This means that:

  • You typically don’t need to submit a reconsideration request when you’re cleaning up innocently duplicated content.
  • If
    you’re a webmaster of beginner-to-intermediate savviness, you probably
    don’t need to put too much energy into worrying about duplicate
    content, since most search engines have ways of handling it.
  • You
    can help your fellow webmasters by not perpetuating the myth of
    duplicate content penalties! The remedies for duplicate content are
    entirely within your control. Here are some good places to start.

Posted by Susan Moskwa, Webmaster Trends Analyst