This past week showed me something very interesting. Mainstream users work with the internet in a completely different manner than early adopters. As an example, read the comments on this ReadWriteWeb post. By now, you have heard about this comment stream and how some users thought the Facebook Connect integration on ReadWriteWeb was the Facebook Login and that they were viewing a new Facebook design. I do not want to make fun of these people, but seeing a big, red, ReadWriteWeb banner should have been an obvious cue that something was wrong.

What was wrong was not that these people stumbled into the wrong site, they use the internet differently. First, these people searched for “Facebook login” on Google. That ReadWriteWeb post was first or second in the search results. Some people have blamed Google for this problem, including ReadWriteWeb themselves:

Google had completely failed its users. It put us, with a post about how an AOL partnership foreshadowed Facebook becoming the de facto user database, above the most logical search result possible – Facebook’s login page. While we mock those users, the simple fact is they haven’t necessarily failed, something failed them.

We can not blame Google for ReadWriteWeb having some excellent SEO. Obviously, they played the SEO game and won with this post. But, they do ask what failed these users?

Design has failed these users. Granted, the group of users that ended up commenting on that post are likely not the real target of any startup, but it should make you reconsider what the mainstream user really expects. I asked my wife what she thought of the situation. She thought it was comical at first until I asked her to login to Facebook. Like many mainstream users, she typed “Facebook” into the little Google search box in the browser, and the suggestions eventually listed Facebook.com and she clicked it. I asked her to type in “Facebook login” in the same box and she went to the Google results. In looking at the search results, she said she would not have clicked the ReadWriteWeb post because it did not say “Facebook.com” or “Facebook Home”. My wife is not an early adopter, but she is not a complete internet newbie either.

I realized that most people are completely dependent upon Google without really realizing it. They do not use URLs because they are too complicated for the mainstream user. They do not want to remember that Facebook is a “.com”, ProBlogger is a “.net” and BBC is a “.co.uk”. Most of the time, they are not typing facebook.com into the address bar, they search for their sites. If you tell them to “type the URL into the address bar of your browser”, you will likely get a confused look. If you remember that interesting experiment from a few months ago, most people do not even know what a browser is, so expecting them to remember what a URL is or the address bar is near impossible.

As engineers, early adopters and product designers, we have failed the mainstream user. How do we fix this? You may be thinking that people will just need to learn, but think about some hacker gaining some SEO juice and presenting a search result with the same title and same page layout as Facebook, just with a different URL? How many accounts will be compromised in that situation? Obviously, a lot of things would need to change in order to make all of this much simpler.

First, search results will need to be presented in a much friendlier manner. If you look at the search results for “facebook login”, you will see that it is not entirely obvious which link is really the Facebook site. At the time I wrote this, here are the top 5 search links:

  1. The actual login page, but you would need to look at the URL to determine that correctly and the title is “Login | Facebook” which is also not really intuitive.
  2. Some link on Smugbox.com, obviously not the Facebook Login, but the title in the results is “Facebook Login”.
  3. A link to the private page for Facebook Lite, and the title is “Facebook | Login”.
  4. “News results for facebook login”, which links to the Google News search results for the same query.
  5. “Facebook Wants To Be Your One True Login”, which is the infamous ReadWriteWeb post.

Based on these, I would think that Google would need to almost completely rework their search algorithm to really fix this issue.

What does this mean for your website or startup? It means that your design must be ridiculously simple in order to really cater to the mainstream. If it does not, then you must have some significant feature, like Facebook’s connect with friends idea, to hook your users. Why do you think Facebook is continuously redesigning their site? Facebook started simple and basically had wall posts. As the user base grew, so did their feature set. As they added more features, they started to complicate the site. This is why groups are migrating to fan pages and wall posts are migrating to status updates. If “groups” are just like other users, that makes the user experience simpler. If status updates and Twitter conventions like @replies are simpler than wall posts, that increases engagement on the site.

For any website or startup, there is a balance that needs to be maintained between completeness of the feature set and the simplicity of the site design. How do you maintain that balance?

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