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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 (UseIt.com) 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 UseIt.com 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!