Last week I spent two days at Conversion Conference, the first trade show dedicated to landing page optimization and Web usability (it’s about time!). I learned a lot at the show and it was a real treat to attend the closing keynote from Jakob Nielsen, who was introduced by Tim Ash as “The Godfather of web usability.” Indeed, my first exposure to usability came way back in 2002 when I read Nielsen’s then-groundbreaking tome, Homepage Usability.

Nielsen’s speech was pretty good, especially in that he reminded the audience that, while A/B and multivariate testing were great, we should never forget the value of good old qualitative user testing, something that I had, well, forgotten! After he finished, I was shocked to find only one person waiting to ask him a question, so I figured it was a great opportunity to ask him the one question I had always wanted to know the answer to: why is your Web site ( so, um, unusual (read: crappy).

I waited patiently for my turn and by the time the first lady had left, there was a line of ten or so people behind me. So I asked my question: “Why is your Web site so unusual? Have you done a lot of user testing? Would you recommend to others that they copy the look and feel of your site?” The guy in line behind me let out a sarcastic snort and said (loudly, so that Nielsen could hear him): “Oh God, here we go again – another question about your Web site!”

Nielsen is a true gentleman and quickly responded by deflecting the jerk’s outburst. “That’s a great question and a lot of people ask me that. The reason is that I’ve found that the people who I want to contact me will contact me anyways, and if I improved the site, I’d get a lot of contacts from people who would not be serious about hiring me for consulting.” In other words, Nielsen was arguing that he’s purposely made his site unusable to create a barrier to contacting him – only the most patient will manage to make it to the contact form.

I assume that the bozo behind me had heard this retort before, and he probably bought it hook, line and sinker. If I had had more time with Nielsen (I’m a nice guy, I wanted to give the hordes behind me a change to ask their questions too), I would have argued this point with him, because I think his explanation wasn’t really the real reason. What Nielsen was basically saying in my mind was this: I’m so busy, I get so many clients, that my Web site really doesn’t matter. People who want to find me will find me.

Of course, this is a silly argument. There are probably dozens of potentially high-qualified clients who see Nielsen’s Web site and immediately hit the back button. There are also some who probably give up instead of getting to the contact us form. If Nielsen wanted to, he could devote a lot of time to testing out and probably double or triple the number of qualified leads to his business. I suspect, then, that his site is not a clever user-experience designed to funnel only the right people through to the contact us page, but rather just laziness, or not having enough hours in the day to spend on his own site.

It struck me that I am largely in the same position with my SEM agency. Ideally, I should be buying AdWords for my own agency and driving business to my site. I currently don’t because I get enough word-of-mouth to keep my team busy. I suppose I could come up with a clever explanation for my lack of PPC (“I believe that referred clients are so much higher quality than marketing leads, so I choose not to advertise on Google”), but the truth is I just don’t have the time, or I’m lazy, or a little of both. Ironically then, the more successful you become in your field, the less time you have to use your skills on your own business.

It’s a nice position to be in, and I don’t fault Nielsen one bit for spending his time giving keynotes, writing books, and most likely receiving hundreds of unsolicited referrals and leads each month from his less-than-stellar Web site. And to the guy behind me that scoffed at my banal question, take a hint from Nielsen: the most successful folks in your industry are usually the most modest ones!


  1. Ben Chinn May 10th, 2010

    The question of Nielsen’s website does come up a lot and I agree that the answer he gave you is pretty lame, especially since it doesn’t really make sense: finding out how to contact Nielsen is one of the easiest things to do on – his email address is right there at the bottom of the page where one usually finds a contact link or information.

    You call his site “unusable” but I don’t think that’s true. It’s actually very easy to use for finding recent articles, events, reports, etc., which is I assume what Nielsen wants people to do. What the site lacks is a good user experience. The site is unattractive and no fun to interact with. In a way I hope Nielsen doesn’t change it since has become the textbook example of the difference between usability and user experience.

  2. David May 10th, 2010

    If Nielsen sees his site as a place to generate leads for his consulting, however, he needs to be concerned with both usability *and* user experience. Otherwise, he should build one site for his articles and one site for his business!

  3. Dallin February 21st, 2012

    I whole-heartedly disagree that Nielsen’s web site is usable in the least. It’s not the lack of attractive design that puts me off but my inability to find anything on the page. It’s an excellent example of a horribly unusable web site. It’s just a bunch on content thrown up on the screen with little noticeable organization until you really look at it and no noticeable navigation. The first time I went to his page I couldn’t even figure out how to get to the content list, since I arrived by a link to his bio page. I’ve looked forever on his page for what I want to find. It’s a horribly unusable website and I hope no one mimics it, even with good design. It really makes me wonder if he really knows what he’s talking about or if he was just the first and so gets much more credit than he deserves.

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David Rodnitzky
David Rodnitzky is founder and CEO of 3Q Digital (formerly PPC Associates), a position he has held since the Company's inception in 2008. Prior to 3Q Digital, he held senior marketing roles at several Internet companies, including (2000-2001), FindLaw (2001-2004), Adteractive (2004-2006), and Mercantila (2007-2008). David currently serves on advisory boards for several companies, including Marin Software, MediaBoost, Mediacause, and a stealth travel start-up. David is a regular speaker at major digital marketing conferences and has contributed to numerous influential publications, including Venture Capital Journal, CNN Radio, Newsweek, Advertising Age, and NPR's Marketplace. David has a B.A. with honors from the University of Chicago and a J.D. with honors from the University of Iowa. In his spare time, David enjoys salmon fishing, hiking, spending time with his family, and watching the Iowa Hawkeyes, not necessarily in that order.