Yahoo Automates Usability Consulting

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How much might the usability of a web page matter to a search engine? If that search engine were to look at an approximation of the layout of a web page, it could try to understand how good of a user experience visiting that page might be, and evaluate the page based upon certain characteristics that it finds upon the page.

A patent application from Yahoo provides a long list of factors that it might look at to determine how usable a web page might be.

So why would a search engine be interested in determining the usability of a web page?

The authors of the document tell us that:

It can be important to make web pages easy and pleasing to use, which can be particularly important for web pages it is desired to monetize.

This may include, for example, advertisement-containing web pages (of a so-called “web portal,” for example), for which an advertiser pays money when a user views the web page and activates a link of the advertisement.

If such web pages are not easy and pleasing to use, the money-making potential of those web pages can be jeopardized. One conventional indication of whether a web page is easy and pleasing to use is called “clutter.”

How well can an algorithm determine how “cluttered” a web page is, as opposed to an actual person making the same determination? That’s hard to say for certain. With so many pages on the web, asking people to review pages for clutter is impractical.

Using a program that can help a site owner make their pages less “cluttered” and therefore “more” usable may make it more likely that a site owner could run more effective advertisements on those pages.

The Yahoo patent application is:

Quantitative Analysis of Web Page Clutter that Accounts for Subjective Preferences
Invented by Koushik Deepak Narayana, John Nathan Boyd, Paul Sokha Kim
Assigned to Yahoo
US Patent Application 20080040195
Published February 14, 2008
Filed August 11, 2006


A method determines a usability measure for a web page. A representation of the web page is processed in view of a usability model.

The usability indication is determined based on the processing step. The representation of the web page may include an indication of at least one of structural and visual elements.

For example, the indication of structural elements may include a document object model of the web page.

The usability model may be a statistical model, such as a linear regression model, that provides an estimate of a statistical relationship between the usability measure and a plurality of characteristics discernible from the representation of the web page.

Creating a Usability Model for Web Pages

A search engine might survey users about how usable a sampling of web pages might be, to create a statistical usability model. That model might be applied to another web page to determine a usability indication for the page.

The structural characteristics of the layout of a page might be approximated as described in the Yahoo patent application that I wrote about in a post from yesterday, The Importance of Page Layout in SEO, to identify structural aspects of a page.

A separate visual look at the page itself may identify some other usability aspects of the page.

The patent application provides the following examples of structural characteristics that might be considered in determining how cluttered a page may be:

  1. Total number of links
  2. Total number of words
  3. Total number of images (non-ad images)
  4. Image area above the fold (non-ad images)
  5. Dimensions of page
  6. Page area (total)
  7. Page length
  8. Total number of tables
  9. Maximum table columns (per table)
  10. Maximum table rows (per table)
  11. Total rows
  12. Total columns
  13. Total cells
  14. Average cell padding (per table)
  15. Average cell spacing (per table)
  16. Dimensions of fold
  17. Fold area
  18. Location of center of fold relative to center of page
  19. Total number of font sizes used for links
  20. Total number of font sizes used for headings
  21. Total number of font sizes used for body text
  22. Total number of font sizes
  23. Presence of “tiny” text
  24. Total number of colors (excluding ads)
  25. Alignment of page elements
  26. Average page luminosity
  27. Fixed vs. relative page width
  28. Page weight (proxy for load time)
  29. Total number of ads
  30. Total ad area
  31. Area of individual ads
  32. Area of largest ad above the fold
  33. Largest ad area
  34. Total area of ads above the fold
  35. Page space allocated to ads
  36. Total number of external ads above the fold
  37. Total number of external ads below the fold
  38. Total number of external ads
  39. Total number of internal ads above the fold
  40. Total number of internal ads below the fold
  41. Total number of internal ads
  42. Number of sponsored link ads above the fold
  43. Number of sponsored link ads below the fold
  44. Total number of sponsored link ads
  45. Number of image ads above the fold
  46. Number of image ads below the fold
  47. Total number of image ads
  48. Number of text ads above the fold
  49. Number of text ads below the fold
  50. Total number of text ads
  51. Position of ads on page

Visual characteristics of the page could also be looked at, after a program converts the page to an image representation of the page. Then Yahoo might look at things like the following:

  1. Presence of animated/flashing ads
  2. Average ad luminosity
  3. Maximum ad luminosity

Other visual aspects of the page may also be reviewed.

The information provided by comparing a web page to the statistical usability model could be provided to the owner of the web page with an evaluation of how the usability of the page could be improved.


This patent application reminds me a little of one from Google – How Google Rejects Annoying Advertisements and Pages.

Yahoo appears to be focusing more upon providing a tool to help people determine how cluttered their pages might be, so that they can advertise more effectively.

What I found most interesting about this process is the way it approximates the layout of a page when determining many aspects of how usable the page might be.

We aren’t told how Yahoo might determine whether some links are sponsored link ads or some images are image ads.

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21 thoughts on “Yahoo Automates Usability Consulting”

  1. Just by looking at how heading tags are used on a site can reveal a lot about the quality of the site. I do a usability testing all of the time, and the sites that are crappy typically have no idea how or what h tags are for. They simply use them because they read some place that search engines like them. I’ve seen countless sites that start with h2 tags. What happened to H1?

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  3. This is a monumental trend and a very insightful analysis.

    All of this enhance the search engines’ bottom line of delivering the smoothest, most organized information experience. Usability has often been viewed as one of the super-premium investments in the digital marketing mix — only suitable for the biggest budgets — but I think news like this indicates that usability experts will be a very well-fed group in 3-5 years’ time.

  4. Bill,
    This is my favorite post of yours so far this year!

    It’s so exciting to me to think that the usable design we’ve always pushed for may begin to play an even more important part that has been previously recognized.

    This is important, good stuff! Thank you for covering this.

  5. Bill, this is so well written and a GREAT topic. I should be sleeping now, but this topic has me jittery. It is a totally new and refreshing way to look at how to determine spam. Have you ever seen anyone else look at these factors? I can imagine the overarching idea is cluttered sites, don’t provide a great experience and as such could be devalued to some extent for crossing the clutter threshold.

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  7. Hi Robert,

    Headings can be an important part of the code behind a site, but they are only one element of what could lead to a site being usable. I wonder how well a system like the one Yahoo describes would work in actuality.

    I’d like to see them develop and release it.

  8. Hi Paul,

    Thanks. I think that there’s a trend towards wanting to make web sites more usable, too. Making sites easier for visitors to use makes perfect sense, and as more people see positive returns for those efforts, I think we’ll more attention to usability.

  9. Hi Wil,

    Thanks, very much.

    Search engines are likely to be paying more and more attention to the quality of sites when it comes to the experiences delivered to users of those sites.

    I’m not certain that this particular patent application is intended to be specifically geared towards fighting spam, but if a search engine can identify the different kinds of aspects of pages like described, they can certainly look for other things on pages, too.

    That might lead to some interesting paths for the search engines to follow.

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  11. Yahoo automates usability consulting? Yes, after I read that I knew I had to say something about it. It is original and it is unbelievable. Haha, lol!

  12. Hi,Bill,
    I like this post very much. But as far as I know, web usability is one of the aspects more subjective than the others. How does Yahoo quantify those web-usability concerned points? Do you know their standards?

  13. @ MSN hacken,

    It is unusually and unbelievable, and surprising that Yahoo would venture into usability with an automated means of determining clutter.

    @ Mont Tremblant skier,

    What I know about Yahoo’s standards is pretty much limited to the information that they’ve provided us with in the patent application. I agree that there are aspects of it that are pretty subjective.

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  15. In my opinion, real usability testing can only be properly quantified with real users. Automation only promotes usability standards from a technical standpoint, not really from mentality – which is the key purpose of usability testing.

  16. Hi Adam,

    I think that you make an important distinction. Mechanically setting a page to comply with an automated usability model isn’t the same as actually testing a page to see that it is usable. I understand the desire in the approach described to reduce clutter on pages, but that really isn’t the same as improving the usability of those pages.

  17. All I can say is “ugh”. I had a similar idea myself a few years back. But I concluded that trying to automate usability analysis in this manner was a dead end. Even seeing that Yahoo is attempting this I’m still convinced it’s of limited value.

    It reminds me of the focus that some organizations place on metrics like task completion time. They may be interesting measures but they usually not very helpful for solving usability problems. That’s what usability/user experience professionals are for. Yes, I’m biased ๐Ÿ™‚

  18. Hi Mike,

    I’m going to echo your sentiments. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’m going to question whether Yahoo would ever pursue the processes described in this patent filing. I’m not sure that they would, but I imagine that they pursued filing the patent application to preserve it as intellectual property as a payoff for conducting research on the topic.

    I think the focus of the research was more on helping webmasters make less cluttered pages that might succeed better when presenting advertisements than it was to improve the overall usability of a web site. Of course, we know that there’s much more to making a usable page than reducing clutter. It may even be possible that a very cluttered page might get more clicks on an advertisement that it shows, since the ad may be the most usable thing on the page. ๐Ÿ™‚

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