Professional Services firms continue to improve their reach and effectiveness online, but search, social, media and consumer websites attract the largest share of overall traffic. Is there anything professional services firms can learn from leading consumer websites when it comes to user experience?

While consumer websites have broader audiences and different buying behaviors than professional services, they offer some intriguing insights that you may be able to apply to your firm’s site. In this post, I explore a few leading websites (as measured by global and national traffic), uncovering a number of web usability lessons and trends for professional services firms to consider and look forward to.

The highest traffic websites in 2016

Overall traffic is a metric* that identifies the sheer volume of a website’s audience and online influence. Here are a few of most relevant traffic winners so far this year:

#1 (global and US) – Naturally, this site is the focus of most of the world’s search engine optimization (SEO) efforts

#2 (global and US) – The second most popular search engine, and an indicator of the growing importance of video content

#3 (global and US) – Less critical for most professional services firms, but more relevant for consumers

#8 (global and US) – An underappreciated opportunity for professional service firms

#12 (global) #17 (US) – This site is particularly important to professional service firms

I’ve left media websites off this list since their engagement goals and usage profiles are so drastically different from B2C, B2B, or professional service focused websites. Before we review some of the top consumer websites, here are a couple of general statistics for context:

  • The most popular content management system (for all websites) is WordPress, powering 25.4% of all websites in the world and hosting over 76.5 million blogs.
  • The average human attention span has declined from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to 8 seconds now. This is shorter than the attention span of a goldfish (at 9 seconds).

Okay. That last point may or may not be real science, since it was revealed by a recent study** that Microsoft commissioned to help sell its online analytics and advertising products. The study did, however, survey over 2,000 people and monitored brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms (EEGs). I would have reviewed the whole 50+ page document but, like a goldfish… you see my point.

B2C retail – sophisticated personalization technology

#6 Global, #4 US – 

Many of you use Amazon on a regular basis to purchase goods. Even if you are not buying, you are likely to using it as a research tool before buying goods elsewhere. From a web usability perspective, Amazon expends considerable resources researching, developing and testing new approaches and technology. Much of this testing happens seamlessly and in small doses—a header modification here, a color shift there, a menu re-organization in a specific category. But the most impressive element of Amazon’s usability experience is its astonishing personalization. Whether you have an Amazon account or not, Amazon will begin learning about your browsing and buying behaviors from the moment you arrive on their site. Different aspects of the site may change based on your choices and behavior—from subtle menu adjustments to extensive layout mutations. And product recommendations adapt fluidly as the system learns more about what interests you.

Some of the most advanced professional services websites are beginning to follow Amazon’s lead, exploring adaptive marketing automation tools and leveraging rich and relevant data. In the future, expect to see more personalized usability features and the increasing availability of affordable, off-the-shelf tools that make it easy to implement these features in your own website.

Next, let’s consider Amazon’s product reviews and descriptions. The company has made significant strides in improving the quality, accuracy and security of these reviews. Amazon has gone as far as pursuing legal action against sellers who fake reviews, and user-reported inaccuracies in descriptions will quickly get products removed or penalized. As professional services firms continue to embrace content marketing, user-generated reviews may provide a mechanism for readers to become more engaged than ever with our ideas. The high visibility, ease of accessibility and sophisticated systems that Amazon employs to police accuracy and relevancy illustrates the importance of thoroughly vetting and prioritizing trust building content for B2C, B2B or professional service firms.

blogoffer-middle-leadgenwebsite-guideHere are a few other takeaways:

  • Personalized recommendations can increase conversion rates by up to 5.5 times*
  • It’s possible to make complex site navigation feel simple
  • Constant testing and incremental adjustments lead to a personalized and data driven user experience
  • HTML5 video elements are being tested for showcase products and categories

eBay – from flea market to curated content

#26 Global, #7 US –

It may be easy to dismiss this auction powerhouse as irrelevant since its business model is so different from most professional services firms (though sometimes our industry can feel like a auction for the lowest bidder)! There has been a couple rather significant shifts that I would like to mention in the context of this post: curated content and contextual offers.

eBay has transformed itself from a sprawling bazaar of auctions to a more curated, story-focused approach. On its homepage, clear navigation and powerful search and filtering make it easy to find anything you are looking for (critical functionality for those of us with diverse and complex markets and service offerings). But over the past few years more dominant featured elements are appearing on the homepage, along with curated “collections” and accompanying stories.

These collections pair product auctions with compelling imagery and thematic stories telling to move beyond groupings of products on an auction block, to a case story for their collective value. Sound familiar? From a usability standpoint, simple card-based design elements allow a user to quickly scan for the story that is most relevant to them – all in less than 8 seconds (remember… we’re no better than a goldfish). These “cards” will follow a user as they browse deeper into categories, highlighting what’s most relevant in any given section. Sounds like a solid on-site offer strategy for any professional services firm.

Already, we’ve learned a couple of lessons about the importance of clear navigation and powerful filtering tools, as well as keeping supporting content and offers front and center.

Apple and Microsoft – house of brands or branded house

#39 Global, #45 US –

#52 Global, #36 US –

How could this list be complete without these two major brands that compete for our digital lifestyles? While we may be moving toward a less device-driven existence (what isn’t in the cloud these days?), these two mega-brands take a very different approach to capturing users’ limited attention online. Each brand’s website strategy mirrors its overall business. Apple pushes a tightly focused and largely enclosed ecosystem on, while Microsoft promotes a multitude of specialized domains, each with their own sub brands. Some of these sub-brands even post in the top 100: is the 37th most-trafficked site in the US.

Comparing a high-level view of each of these sites’ web usability, they all try to pare down complex products and services into simplified messaging, imagery and easily digestible content. Users can dig deeper for specifications and more information, but typically this requires some dedicated digging.

While one might think that Microsoft’s more specialized approach would allow for tighter, more specific messaging, its usability can suffer from trying to connect various products across domains and categories — leading to a more fragmented experience. On the other hand, its use of multiple domains, each with impressive traffic on its own, creates a very wide funnel to capture impressions. What it takes to actually promote that many domains is a discussion for another post!

Apple’s website (which is often critiqued) is mammoth in scope and mirrors the brand’s overall design aesthetic, favoring bite-size messaging and lots of white space. There is a lot of experimentation with new HTML 5 video and animated elements, which generally work smoothly, but can sometimes put form before function. Is this bleeding edge presentation worthwhile for Apple? Probably. For professional services firms? Probably not. However, you can use more conservative techniques to add video and animation to your website today. Taking a step in this direction may help set your firm apart from others in the online space. How might these dynamic features support your firm’s positioning?

What you present on your firm’s website ultimately comes down to your overall positioning and business strategy. But these dueling juggernauts can provide refreshing inspiration for your website’s messaging, organization of services and presentation.

Consumer websites have always been the first to explore new technologies and strategies, but over the last five years the gap has begun to close. Will you be looking to incorporate any of these approaches into your firm’s website?

Additional Resources:

  • For more hands-on help on becoming the next Visible Firm®, register for our Visible Firm® course through Hinge University.

How Hinge Can Help:

Your B2B website should be one of your firm’s greatest assets. Our High Performance Website Program helps firms drive online engagement and leads through valuable content. Hinge can create the right website strategy and design to take your firm to the next level.

Karl Feldman